For these nine, the alternative to graduation was jail

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comJune 13, 2014 

It became apparent that Fritz Schnoor was spiraling when he stopped doing the things he loved.

“I just didn’t want to play music anymore,” said Schnoor, 24, who plays piano and guitar.

His family had previously tried to get him psychiatric help for his bipolar disorder, but the medications weren’t working for him.

“He basically said, ‘I’m not going to take this anymore,’” said his mother, Gail Schnoor of Arroyo Grande.

Eventually, her son was arrested for disturbing the peace and wound up behind bars.

“I didn’t like jail at all,” the soft-spoken musician said.

Fortunately for him, there was an alternative to jail. And after graduating from the county’s Behavioral Health Treatment Court Friday, Fritz Schnoor said he’s back to playing music.

“I feel good,” he told The Tribune. “My mental health is under control now.”

In a ceremony held at the county’s jury services room, three people graduated from the Behavioral Health Treatment Court, which offers alternatives for the criminally accused who have mental health issues. Six others graduated from the Adult Treatment Court Collaborative, an alternative for defendants who have a combination of drug and mental health issues.

“Some of you should go back and look at your booking photos to see what you looked like,” Superior Court Judge Ginger Garrett told the graduates, noting their dramatic change of appearance.

Garrett, who presides over the courts in addition to her regular load of criminal cases, introduced each graduate as family members applauded them from the audience.

While the banners and balloons were similar to the ones that might be seen at a high school or college graduation party, the road to get here is considerably tougher.

If a person is charged with a crime, they can volunteer for the alternative court, which offers treatment instead of jail time. But it takes a greater commitment than jail, Garrett said.

“It’s pretty easy to just go do your time,” she said.

Those in the alternative courts, she said, have to take personal responsibility.

The treatment courts are a collaborative project, the court working with local law enforcement and mental health groups. Those in the program are provided medication, counseling and help with housing and employment.

“When you get all that in place, that’s what enables them to be successful,” she said.

The county has other alternative treatment courts — including one for veterans and one for those charged with drug offenses. The BHTC and ATCC, however, require a mental health component.

The county has enough staff to accept close to 30 people in the BHTC every year and about 50 in the ATCC. But not everyone graduates.

Those who don’t are remanded to regular criminal court.

Each person continuing in the programs has to appear in Garrett’s court every Friday to discuss their progress.

“Every Friday is a celebration,” Garrett said. “I get to share your success.”

When Schnoor first entered her court, Garrett said, he didn’t smile.

She discovered he was a folk singer, though, and eventually Schnoor played a recording of one of his songs — titled, appropriately. “It’s a Long Road Home.”

The song, she said, was soulful and obviously autobiographical.

“You could feel the struggle behind it,” Garrett said.

Schnoor, once a sponsored skateboarder, is also back to skating.

“We’ve just had much more success with county mental health as opposed to private care,” his mother said.

On Friday, as Garrett presented each graduate with a certificate and a dog tag bearing the inscription “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” other success stories were shared.

One man, formerly homeless, has since reunited with his family after a long separation. Another current participant, who was once psychotic and nearly kicked out of Garrett’s courtroom, spoke eloquently about “having a sound mind with joy and peace.” Others spoke of new beginnings.

Lisa Ruiz, who said she had a combination of mental health issues and addictions, credited a caring cadre of helpers in the program.

“They didn’t take our bad behaviors personally,” she said. “They wanted to see us succeed.”

There’s no guarantee the graduates won’t have setbacks. But in the past, jail had been a revolving door for many of these people, Garrett said.

“Nobody really thinks that’s a solution to the problem,” she said. “And a lot of people in this program have been in jail over and over and over.”

Most experts agree that time in jail only exacerbates problems for the mentally ill. And since jails are becoming more overcrowded in a state-mandated attempt to limit prison populations, alternatives like these are even more appealing — particularly when there are positive results, Garrett said.

“I’m really on board with this approach,” she said.

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