NORRISTOWN — Under a new program established by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, deputies will assist community members who have mental health and behavioral challenges as they make their way through the court system.
Modeled after a similar program introduced in Bucks County last year, the sheriff department’s Pathfinder program will link deputies certified in crisis intervention with court participants in need of special services in order to provide support and avert potentially volatile situations.
“There are behavioral health consumers throughout the criminal justice system and the court system in general. Recognizing that as a fact and seeing the stressors put on everybody related to COVID I wanted to get our folks trained for crisis intervention and de-escalation so we can pair deputies who are professionally trained along with behavioral health consumers, hopefully to diffuse situations and make everybody’s transition through the criminal justice system as easy and efficient as possible,” county Sheriff Sean P. Kilkenny said during an interview on Wednesday.
All deputies participating in the program have been certified through coursework at Montgomery County Emergency Services, a regional leader in crisis intervention specialist training for more than four decades.
Kilkenny said currently 11 deputies have completed either basic or advanced training and six additional deputies are awaiting training. Chief Deputy Adam T. Berry is helping to get the program off the ground.
“We’ve gotten a very positive reaction from our deputies,” Kilkenny said.
According to Oscar Gamble, communications and public relations coordinator for the sheriff’s office, the curriculum trains law enforcement personnel how to recognize signs that a person is in crisis and how to avoid or de-escalate potentially volatile situations “using empathy, compassion, active listening and other specialized de-escalation techniques.”
The specially-trained deputies will be available to assist in the county’s courtrooms in the event a defendant is identified as needing mental health or behavioral health services.
“If a request is put in or a call is made to us we will make sure that a deputy who is specially trained is in that courtroom,” Kilkenny said.
Referrals will come through a dedicated email system as well as through court administrators, adult probation officers and domestic relations officials. Additionally, the program will serve as a point of contact with the county’s diversionary courts, such as veterans, drug and behavioral health courts, to provide an integrated resource for court participants experiencing mental health crisis.
“In the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office we always try to be on the cutting edge of programs,” Kilkenny said.
In 2009, court administrators launched a Behavioral Health Court, a treatment program that addresses the needs of people with serious mental health problems who are progressing through the court and prison systems. The goal of the court is to protect the public while improving the outcome and quality of life for people with mental illness under community corrections supervision.
Under that program, adult defendants with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, major mood disorder or borderline personality disorder that contributed to their criminal behaviors are connected with community treatment services while receiving appropriate dispositions for their offenses.
The majority of offenders are accused of non-violent crimes. Participants must agree to follow a court approved treatment plan, routinely meet with probation and mental health officers and report to court weekly for progress sessions. The average length of participation in the program is 18-to-24-months.
Participants who successfully complete the program can have certain felony charges reduced to misdemeanors or misdemeanor charges dismissed. Such determinations are made on a case-by-case assessment of a person’s prior record and the nature of the crime, officials said.
When offenders are released from the court or prison system, mental health providers are also available to assist them.
There have been more than a dozen graduations for those who have successfully completed the program.
The program represents a collaboration of officials from the courts, the jail, the district attorney’s office, the public defender’s office, community-based treatment providers, and the county offices of adult probation and behavioral health.