PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota’s chief justice plans to pilot a program aimed at helping to treat and stabilize defendants with mental illnesses.

Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson is requesting funding for a specialized court that would allow defendants to agree to undergo mental health treatment in exchange for a possible dismissal of charges, the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/2cWLyag ) reported. The mental health court will be piloted in Pennington County, and if it is successful, it may be expanded to Minnehaha County.

“They have been used in many states in the country with success,” Gilbertson said.

A task force that Gilbertson chairs has been studying issues surrounding mentally ill people entering the criminal justice system in South Dakota. The task force was put together after the Argus Leader reported that a backlog of mental competency evaluations of criminal suspects is taxing county budgets and raising concerns about the rights of defendants.

Under the pilot program, prosecutors could contact a defendant’s attorney to offer to move the case to the specialized court. The defendant who agrees to enter the court would then undergo a mental health evaluation and would be mandated to follow treatment. Defendants who successfully complete the programs requirements could see their charges tossed.

The state already has other specialized courts, including for drug and drunken driver offenders and veterans.

Phyllis Arends, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said she believes the pilot program will be a success.

“I think there is a lot of interest in helping people stay in the community rather than throwing them behind bars,” Arends said.


Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com