The effort to create a mental health court for Erie and Ottawa counties should be applauded.
But with that applause should come a wary eye out for the potential for abuse by people claiming disability or mental illness simply as a way to dodge punishment.
The court, expected to launch this summer, will provide co-ordination of local law enforcement, jails, courts and counseling services to professionally and quickly assess the mental health and substance abuse needs of defendants. It will also establish programs to help convicts find housing and provide them with job coaching after their release.
It could be argued that such a program is just another layer of bureaucracy that will impede the justice system and be an open invitation for abuse by defendants and their lawyers seeking reduced sentences. Do the crime, pay the time.
Our jail system already stretched to its limit. It doesn't make sense to turn a blind eye to those in actual need by throwing them in jail, simply because we fear some will abuse the system.
Those that are most in need of help often don't get it, according to Lee Jacobs, coordinator of Intervention Court, the program's name. In many cases, it is simply educating those in need that help is available once they've paid their debt to society, she said.
With two federal grants totaling over $300,000 already committed to the project -- enough money to fund it for 30 months -- the establishment of the mental health court will not place a burden on local tax payers.
Keeping those first-time offenders from becoming repeat offenders and out of the court system is an important way to fight crime and save valuable tax dollars.
If the proposed mental health court for Erie and Ottawa counties has success rehabilitating anybody with mental illness or a substance abuse problem, it will be well worth the effort.