Mental health court to tackle roots of criminality

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The discussion around mental health as it relates to criminal cases has intensified and, as a result, Hillsborough County has opened a new court to address those cases.

FSU student Nicole Nachtman's mental health has com into question after her arrest in the death of her parents. James Jugo has been under similarly scrutiny after, police say, he killed his roommate while fighting over a chicken leg. And Joseph Corrao's mental health has been questioned after he allegedly picked up slung Pinky the Flamingo during a visit to Busch Gardens. Pinky was later euthanized due to injuries from the incident.

The mental health of these criminal defendants will a play a role in their cases and could end up in courtroom 11 - the new home of Mental Health Court.

Hillsborough Public Defender Julie Holt says this specialty court is not like your typical courtroom. Here, you have prosecutors, defense attorneys and mental health experts all working together to problem solve.

"It's really a collaboration about this individual that's in front of you," Holt explained of defendants who may land in the courtroom.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman is a big supporter of mental health resources.

"We don't want another Sandy Hook or some unfortunate accident to happen in this community because we let people go undiagnosed," said Murman.

State Attorney Andrew Warren believes our courtrooms are seeing more and more repeat offenders and untreated mental illnesses.

"We need to make sure that we are triaging so we are identifying the people who have mental illness, so we can get them the treatment that they need. Because the traditional conviction and incarceration fails," explained Warren.

But Hillsborough Chief Judge Ron Ficarrotta says this will work.

"Our circuit was one of the leaders in drug court, way back when, and our veterans court has taken off and is one of the national models now, and I anticipate a bright future for our mental health court," said Ficarrotta.

Thursday, many in the courthouse were getting up-to-speed on how it will all work. The goal is simple.

"Our focus is success. Our focus is to make these individuals independent is some way, and able to lead their life without the structure of the criminal justice system," explained Holt.

Mental Health court is taking baby steps. It will begin with non-violent crimes, like drugs and petty theft, and eventually will take on more serious crimes. To start, court will be in session the third Wednesday of every month.