Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to provide additional information about how the community came together to create the court and to list the names of people serving on the court's advisory board.
Too many times people enter the criminal justice system because they have mental and behavioral health issues that have not been addressed.
Starting this week, Pitt County’s judicial system is launching an effort that will give people a chance for treatment, as well as resolution of their legal problems.
The Pitt County Behavioral Health Treatment Court will convene for the first time on Friday, giving nine individuals a change to meet with the court’s team and program providers, said District Court Judge Wendy S. Hazelton. The individuals then will decide if they want to participate.
“The BHTC has been a dream of many in our community for years,” Hazelton said. “Several stakeholders from both the criminal justice and mental health communities have been working hard since June 2019 to make this court a reality.”
The program combines court supervision with mental health treatment to ensure individuals obtain appropriate services and that they maintain treatment as they transition back into community life.
Hazelton said retired District Court Judge P. Gwynett Hilburn initially pursued the treatment court, but ran into funding roadblocks.
While funding issues temporarily placed the court’s formation on the back bench, community interest in the program remained, Hazelton said.
Keith W. Cooper, executive director of The Benevolence Corps., approached newly appointed Pitt County Chief District Court Judge G. Galen Braddy about continuing the work to form the behavioral health treatment court.
A community group was formed and its members began exploring ways to offer services cost-effectively.
Today the BHTC team is supported by an advisory board that includes Cooper, Hazelton, Hilburn, Cavanagh and District Attorney Faris Dixon, Pitt County Clerk of Superior Court Sara Beth Fulford Rhodes, chief probation/parole officer Tracy Gatling, mental health probation officers John Bancroft and Nyaisa Ten, Churches Outreach Network CEO Rodney Coles Sr., Trillium Health Resources systems of car coordinator Keith Letchworth, assistant clerk of court Nancy Ray, BHTC coordinator and drug court case manager Megan Hartzog, National Alliance on Mental Illness Pitt County President Christine Spencer, Dixon Social Interactive Services CEO Barry Dixon.
“This extraordinary team of people is looking forward to serving the residents of Pitt County, and I am grateful for all the hard work each person has devoted to this specialty court as we improve the way we approach behavioral health issues in Pitt County’s courts,” Hazelton said.
The current treatment court task force worked around those roadblocks by finding supportive community members, Hazelton said.
Gary Bass, a licensed clinical social worker and the chief executive officer of Pride In North Carolina, and Roxanne Banks, director of outpatient services at Integrated Family Services, are supporting the court by providing initial mental health screenings and clinical assessments, as well as the initial case management responsibilities.
Hazelton said other members of the court’s advisory board will work to find financial resources to help individuals receive their prescribed treatment.
Those who have been charged with low-level misdemeanors and low-level felonies, mainly those involving property crimes, qualify for the program, Hazelton said. If a potential participant is facing an assault charge, the victim will be consulted and must agree that the individual should participate in the program.
Candidates are referred to the Pitt County District Attorney, who will review their cases to determine if the treatment court is right for them.
If the district attorney thinks an individual is a good candidate, a recommendation will go to Michael Cavanagh, an assistant public defender, who then will discuss the program with the individual. Those interested will go to court and meet with team members. Once they agree to participate, they will then begin the assessment phase, Hazelton said.
Individuals have to accept responsibility upfront for their actions when they begin the program, she said.
The court provides an opportunity for participants to receive a lesser plea offer, to have a reduced probationary period, or to have their criminal charge dismissed altogether if they engage in ongoing court sessions as well as mental health treatment.
The court’s requirements will help guide and support the participant’s mental health stability, help them learn to manage their mental wellness, end their encounters with police and the court system, avoid going to jail or prison and become more productive members of the community, Hazelton said.