(3TV/CBS 5)-- There is a type of criminal that’s draining police resources and the non-profits that want to help them succeed.
They’re individuals who are in and out of jail dozens of times for low-level offenses, but putting a stop to the revolving door of arrests is a complex issue and the solutions don’t always work.
“They tend to violate what we call ‘status offenses,’ which are things that often happen with people who don’t have a place to live,” said Hon. Kevin Kane, the presiding judge of Tempe Municipal Court. “Urinating in public, public consumption of alcohol, trespass, disorderly conduct.”
On most Tuesday mornings, you can find Kane heading up the Tempe Mental Health Court, a specialty court that seeks to treat the root cause of every defendant’s trouble with the law.
“They agree to sign a contract that typically requires them to, for example, perhaps attend substance abuse counseling once or twice a week,” Kane said.
Kane said many of his defendants have been in jail several times.
Arizona’s Family has identified an individual who has been arrested more than anyone else in the Valley. Bill Ray Williams has been in jail 49 times over the past 5 years for charges including littering, trespassing and fighting. Last August, he faced a charge of shoplifting.
He’s not alone.
Last month, a man shut down light rail operations downtown when he climbed on a station and sat there for six hours. Crews eventually helped Michael Franco get down the metal structure by using a ladder truck. The 34-year-old has an extensive criminal history, including drug violations and property damage.
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink,” said Phoenix police Sgt. Thomas Walters, who runs the the Misdemeanor Repeat Offender Program (MROP). “We work the people. We monitor them, we dig into their past [and] see what they’ve done with their criminal history.”
Walters has six officers who dedicate most of their time to this kind of outreach.
“However long it takes to get these folks to services, whatever they may need, we don’t have a problem doing that,” Walters said.
Walters said not everyone is receptive to a helping hand.
“We are the police. We still have a duty to enforce the law, so we will go that route if it leads that way,” Walters said.
There are other resources to help people break the cycle of repeat arrests.
The Human Services Campus served more than 6,500 people in the last year.
“About 40 percent of them report mental health as a condition that they have as a barrier to ending their homelessness,” said Human Services Campus executive director Amy Schwabenlender.
There are about 20 non-profits on the campus offering job services, shelter, medical care and legal help.
Schwabenlender said a night in jail can easily undermine a client’s progress.
“We lose contact with them-- that engagement essentially stops,” Schwabenlender said.
“Resources are always a challenge,” Kane said.
Kane has stacks of cases, but only enough time and people to take on about 170 individuals each year-- that’s because each defendant is closely monitored.
“We ask them to comply with the contract and return in 4 to 6 weeks to see how they’re doing,” Kane said. “But it’s a challenge to keep them on the medication.”
Programs to help people may have limitations, but there are success stories. One woman graduating Tempe Mental Health Court this month spoke at court and offered advice and encouragement.
“The prescription medication I was given started to take over my life,” the graduate said. “It was [really] easy to move to the illegal drugs, and I decided to not be a victim anymore. I’m really grateful I had this opportunity.”
The court room erupted in applause after her statement.
“It’s amazing how we can turn lives around when they do comply and they do buy in and, ultimately, typically, they’re charges are dismissed,” Kane said. “That’s one of the motivations.”
The court celebrated 30 graduates last year. Nearly 70 people got their charges dropped for their participation in the program. Tempe Mental Health Court boasts an 18 percent recidivism rate, so data shows graduates are not likely to reoffend. The court only tracks recidivism within the City of Tempe.
There are specialty courts, like Tempe’s Mental Health Court, in cities across the Valley. It takes time and money to expand these programs. But leaders are now starting to collaborate, so they don’t waste critical resources or overburden defendants seen in multiple jurisdictions.