Harrison County’s Court-at-Law celebrated the inaugural graduation of the county’s new Mental Health Jail Diversion Program, which saw the success of three graduates, on Tuesday.
“It’s a combination of a probation condition as well as a diversion program. In other words, people that are assigned to the program from jail have an opportunity to, if they complete the program, to possibly get their charges dismissed; or, as a condition of probation, if they complete the program, then they have the ability to get off of probation early,” said Harrison County Court-at-Law Judge Joe Black, explaining how the program works.
Participants on the court’s mental health docket who graduated Tuesday were Richard Simpson, Dever Applewhite and Rudy Bates. Black presented each a certificate of achievement for successfully completing the Harrison County Mental Health Jail Diversion program. Representatives from the Harrison County District Attorney’s Office, probation department and Community Healthcore were all present to applaud the first graduates on a job well done.
“This can’t be done by just any one individual,” said Black. “What Community Healthcore does for us, the probation department, the DA’s office working with us, this is definitely a joint effort trying to keep this going.”
The judge noted how the entities all work together to make sure participants are successful.
“There are times when they’ll call us on a Monday morning (if) something bad happened, trying to work through it, trying to screen other individuals we believe qualify for this,” the judge said. “We can’t take everybody. People with violent offenses, sex offenses, cases with weapons, we’re not allowed to put them in the program for safety issues; but we do take people who have criminal history in their past. Without these folks, this program doesn’t get done.”
The program was implemented in Harrison County in April 2022. The goal is for participants to successfully complete it within a year’s timeframe or a couple of months sooner, depending on their progress.
“Usually it’s a one year program minimum. If they’re doing well, they have the ability to possibly graduate a month or two early,” noted Black. “If they’re not doing well, depending on what their conditions of probation are, they may remain in the program, if necessary, longer than a year.”
Simpson, the first to enroll in the program, was all smiles Tuesday as he accepted his certificate and helped himself to a celebratory cupcake. Simpson had a small setback along the way, but worked diligently to comply with all requirements of the program.
“He started really working this program, had one little hiccup in the middle, but he never gave up,” Judge Black shared during the ceremony. “He finds rides to get here and he meets with his doctor.”
Simpson was the first person to volunteer and sign up for the program. He had a pending case, at the time, and was able to work it off, and complete his probation. He was also able to diligently work on clearing another pending case that came up once he joined the program. Judge Black was pleased to announce that due to Simpson’s successful participation in the program, the DA’s office was granting a recusal on his case.
“That case is going to be dropped because of your participation in the program and that’s behind you,” Black said, revealing the good news to Simpson.
Reflecting on how fulfilling the program has been to him, Simpson said it’s given him a different perspective in life.
“I have to think before I react,” said Simpson. “I was real quick to react without thinking. My attitude was real bad at first.”
The second graduate, Dever Applewhite, is also grateful for the program. He was one of the first to begin the program, following Simpson.
“Dever really embraced the program. He had these little friends who were talking to him all the time when he first started; and now I’m happy to say the friends may be there but he doesn’t listen to them anymore,” Black beamed. “He’s been a shining example of how to work this program and get involved.
“And I can’t tell you how proud we are each day,” Black said, expounding on the amazing turnaround Applewhite has made.
Applewhite’s charge will also be taken care of because of his completion of the program.
“You’ll be released from your probation. And you don’t have to worry about it anymore,” Black informed him.
“We hope you have the tools now to keep going forward and not have any problems anymore,” the judge added.
Black said that’s one of the benefits of the program — the fact that the support system doesn’t just stop after graduation.
“They’re able to continue participating with Community Healthcore. They may switch over to a different counselor or they may stay with the same one,” the judge explained. “But they’re still going to have the ability to visit with their doctor, to get their medications at no expense to them. So, kind of the program is like it’s not what we do for them, it’s what they learn to do for themselves.”
It’s a program that Applewhite and the rest of the graduates appreciate.
“It’s not hard if you put your mind to it,” said Applewhite.
The third graduate, Rudy Bates, got spiffy for Tuesday’s special occasion, donning a new haircut and a healthier look that received great compliment.
“Rudy’s he’s had a rough time. There was a time when we first started seeing Rudy, he was actually living in the woods,” said Judge Black. “He started working the program, going backwards and forwards. He’s had his ups and downs. There’s no doubt about it, but I’m proud to say he’s up here; he’s worked it and he’s graduating and resolving his case and getting this behind him, as well.”
Black said he’s proud of Rudy, and the strides he’s made in this journey.
“He is one of the individuals that had an issue with narcotics, trying to supplement his behavior, and I think he’s realized that that’s not the way to go,” said Black. “He’s been seeing his doctor, getting his medication, he looks so much better. That’s a great thing, and we’re proud.”
The judge encouraged him to continue doing what he needs to do to stay on the right path.
“I’m proud to hand this to you,” he said, presenting Bates with his certificate of completion.
Reflecting on how successful the program has been, so far, Judge Black said a lot of the program participants are individuals who are in the mental health system.
“They’re repeat offenders, but they’ve never had anybody to work with them, getting them the services that are available, getting them to a doctor, being able to afford their medication,” said Black. “Through this program, their medication is free through Community Healthcore. Their counselors and probation staff will assist them with housing. If they become employable, if they can qualify for a job, we work with that capacity maybe getting them with the Texas Workforce Commission and making sure that they understand the importance of staying away from drugs.
“The whole goal is to keep these people out of the criminal justice system again and again and again,” he said. “And a lot of people don’t know where to get those services, how to use those services, or continue to use them. By what (Community Healthcore) does, is they get all those services working together as one for those people and then we meet with them once a month. Even though it’s very briefly, it’s just so everybody understands that we appreciate what they do; we appreciate their hard work. And if there’s problems we get them addressed in here, so the next month maybe we won’t have that problem again.”
The county started the program nearly a year ago after observing a similar program instituted in Gregg County.
“We had watched the program in Gregg County. I talked with Judge Morin, and he was in favor of the program. He and I thought it would be a good program to start over here,” shared Black. “We went over and learned some things and talked to [County Court-at-Law No. 1] Judge [Kent] Phillips, who was the judge in County Court at Law that ran the program for Gregg County. Then we implemented our program with Community Healthcore to get it moving forward.”
“The individuals we saw today, who graduated, have done very well to turn themselves around for the better and it’s nice to see them in that capacity,” Judge Black said.