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Topeka To Offer Alternative Sentencing Court

The City of Topeka, Kan., is launching an effort to provide treatment, instead of jail, for people whose misdemeanor crimes are linked to mental illness.

The city will use a $91,000 grant from the Kansas Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to fund an Alternative Sentencing Court next year. Anyone charged with a misdemeanor or traffic offense will be eligible for the new program, if they’ve been diagnosed with a severe mental illness.

To avoid jail time, they’ll have to complete a one-year program that includes treatment and drug testing. They must appear for all court hearings, and pay their court fees and treatment costs.

Rick Cagan, who heads the Kansas chapter of the National Association on Mental Illness, says the program promises not only to reduce pressure on the Shawnee County Jail, but to keep people out of the Osawatomie State Hospital.

“You know, jail is not the place to get treatment for your mental illness. That, ideally, is a community-based function," Cagan says. "It’s more cost-effective at the community-based level, and of course people are getting better quality treatment than they would if they were incarcerated.”

Topeka officials say a large percentage of municipal court cases are mental health-related. They believe providing appropriate services to these defendants will help them live successfully in the community, reduce repeat offenses, and create a safer community. 

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