Judge Richard Hopper’s alternative court getting results with combination of ‘firmness and fairness’

Judge Richard Hopper
Courtesy of Hennepin County Public Affairs, Lisa Fleming
For the past seven years, Judge Richard Hopper has headed Hennepin County’s innovative mental health court.

At 9:30 on a recent Wednesday morning, the gallery in Hennepin County District Court Judge Richard Hopper’s courtroom is a study in agitation. Several of the two dozen or so defendants waiting to appear are killing time talking to themselves.

In the third row, a man in a navy T-shirt wants to know why the judge hasn’t taken the bench yet.

“I’m sitting here,” grouses Quincy Thomas. “So where is the *@#&% judge? Where is the judge?

Thomas is explaining to no one in particular that “they” now make American flags fireproof when his lawyer sweeps in from the hall to explain what’s going to happen, which, boiled way down, is that Thomas will check in with Hopper and then be allowed to leave.

He brightens considerably. “All right,” he exclaims. “I’ll be in and out like a rocket.”

He turns to the man in the next seat. “I’m sorry I’m being so obnoxious,” he apologizes. “I’m just scared of a jail sentence. I can’t be at the mercy of another person.”

Until he landed before Hopper, Thomas was in court on a new, relatively minor charge every few weeks. He’s doing comparatively well now, however, and is on track to resolve his six remaining cases. Four are for loitering, one for public urination and one for simple assault.

Judge Hopper’s mental health court is in session
Welcome to mental health court, a seven-year-old experiment in delivering criminal defendants with persistent mental illnesses the services they need to stay out of jail. One of the first of its kind, the court has garnered national attention for its success.

Ever since the mass deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill of 30 years ago, virtually every court system in the country has struggled to deal with a particular type of offender. Most mentally ill people never run afoul of law enforcement, but those that do tend to do so frequently and at great cost to taxpayers.

Unchecked, their illnesses cause them to act out. When they do, they invariably end up in the hands of police officers who have to decide, should they be deposited at the emergency room or the local jail?

“Often, it’s not until someone appears in front of me and tells me that they have diplomatic immunity that anyone figures out there’s anything wrong,” Hopper said. “We try to connect the dots.”

Along with judicial dispositions and sentences, mental health court defendants get case plans and lots and lots of supervision to see that the plans are followed.

Hopper’s team of probation officers, social workers and psychiatric nurses don’t just make sure defendants are sober and taking their medications but also will drop in on a client. They may check the contents of her refrigerator or urge her to get out of the house and spend time with other people. If someone needs treatment or the pressure of random urinalysis, they’ll ask the judge to order it.

They will meet with a client once, twice, three times a week if need be. With any luck, by the time the client is “discharged” — with his or her case closed — the defendant can either stay out of trouble on their own or get the help they need to do so.

Special ‘problem-solving courts’ nationwide trend
Over the last decade, a wide array of “problem-solving courts” has sprung up nationwide. Some — including many drug courts [PDF] — have not lived up to their early promise, while others are still in their infancy.

But mental health courts seem to be working.

A national study by the MacArthur Foundation that’s expected to document the model’s effectiveness should be completed later this year, but court systems across the country aren’t waiting to replicate it.

Judge Richard Hopper
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins
Judge Richard Hopper

Low-key and unassuming, Hopper is widely cited as one reason the court is so successful. In 1989, then-Gov. Rudy Perpich appointed him to a Dakota County judgeship. Aside from the hassle of getting himself re-elected every four years, he could have put his career on coast.

But after seven years, at the age of 47, Hopper retired. He wanted to spend more time with his six kids, and he also wanted to help reform the judicial system in El Salvador, where ideologically inflamed notions of justice were often enforced by assassination.

In 1998, Kathleen Blatz, then chief of the Minnesota Supreme Court, asked Hopper to come back on special assignment, handling a series of cases involving other judges, including Appeals Court Judge Roland Amundson and Hennepin County District Court Judge Harvey Ginsberg.

Hopper’s ‘special assignment’ going on 12 years
Special assignments are usually short term, but Hopper’s has extended 12 years.

He also took over Hennepin County’s so-called community impact calendar, a chaotic, dreaded courtroom where a rotating cast of judges tried unsuccessfully to make an impact on a rotating cast of low-level offenders whose non-violent crimes had an outsized effect on the community’s quality of life.

Irked by defendants’ seeming inability to straighten out their problems with other parts of the bureaucracy, Hopper took the relatively novel step of bringing the bureaucrats into the courtroom. The approach attracted attention.

At some point, he did an experiment.

One day he took the list of people in jail making their first appearance before a judge and ran it against a database of county human services clients — located in the north half of the building that houses the courts. Ten percent had files in both systems.

In the early 2000s, crime in downtown Minneapolis had become a political liability for the mayor, city council members and members of the Hennepin County Board. The latter entity appointed two commissions to study the problem.

One worked to beef up law enforcement downtown. The other — which Hopper serendipitously was asked to head — set out to determine whether the crime was being perpetrated by people who had fallen through cracks in the social service system.

Hopper assigned a county researcher to ride with downtown beat cops for two months. He wasn’t surprised when all 33 of the people with whom the officers had the most contact turned out to have extensive histories with both the courts and social services.

“We found all had done significant jail or prison time,” he said. “All had been given significant social services.” Neither approach had worked on its own, he noted.

Hopper approach combines jail and social services
Courts in Florida and Seattle were getting results employing both tactics in combination, however. In May 2003, Hopper got the go-ahead to start hearing a special mental health calendar in Hennepin County.

At first, the court consisted of the judge, his clerk, a probation officer and a social worker from county Human Services. Hopper lobbied for the fledgling program with everyone from the downtown business community to the court hierarchy.

To bolster his case, he asked two of the court’s early defendants for permission to gather their medical histories and other private records. Each was getting arrested two or three times a week but was never charged with anything more serious than a gross misdemeanor.

Combined, the two had racked up more than $1 million in bills with the Hennepin County Medical Center and $35,000 each in county jail costs, Hopper learned. More staggering, the tab didn’t include doctors’ fees, bills from other emergency rooms or the salaries of the police, court workers or others whose job it was to try to sort things out.

In cases like these, Hopper said, “Jail time is like an overused antibiotic: It’s lost its effectiveness.”

Today, mental health court typically has about 250 clients who suffer from mental illnesses, traumatic brain injuries and developmental deficits. A county social worker screens defendants for eligibility.

Unlike defendants in typical courts, mental health court participants appear in front of the same judge every time. Sometimes they are asked to appear just to check in — as often as weekly if they’re struggling.

Those who don’t comply with Hopper’s orders are sent back to regular court, where their option is often incarceration.

At a recent Wednesday session, Hopper gave a recalcitrant defendant by the name of Lawrence Chapman this choice. Not only had Chapman shrugged off the judge’s orders to attend therapy and appoint someone to handle his money so he wouldn’t get taken advantage of, but he also had picked up two new cases on charges of loitering with an open bottle and driving without a license.

Chapman spread his hands in a gesture of incomprehension, but Hopper wasn’t buying it. “You’re not trying,” he said. “You just do what you damn well please.”

The judge gave Chapman a week to decide whether he was willing to make the effort or go back onto the regular calendar. “We go through this every review,” he said. “It’s just not working out. It’s everybody’s fault but Lawrence’s.”

Hopper hopes to balance firmness, fairness
Hopper’s aim is to be firm but fair. “You must always treat the clients with respect. They’re human beings,” he explained. “But at the same time, you have to hold them accountable.”

In his view, the toughest question is how much growth is realistic. “Each one is a different puzzle that we have to figure out,” he said. “How much can we expect of this particular individual? How much are they going to be able to do?”

Hopper’s successes have attracted attention both nationally and at home. The court is the focus of two current studies, the nearly completed MacArthur Foundation effort and a similar one by the National Center for State Courts.

Meanwhile, the state Judicial System last year approached Hopper about setting up a special court for military veterans, who have benefited in other places from a similar court as a one-stop-shop approach. To date, the resulting veterans court has met twice.

Like mentally ill defendants, individuals the small group of troubled veterans who wind up in the courts frequently have long records of cycling from jail to Veterans Administration services and back. Again, neither approach seems to work alone.

In the courtroom, VA representatives can make appointments and call up records electronically. Because the military has such a strong culture of fraternity, most of the court workers assigned to it are vets, and each defendant is assigned a volunteer mentor whose only role is to be there and be supportive.

Hopper is quick to note that there is not yet documentation that either mental health or veterans court saves taxpayers money. A 2006 study by the Rand Corp. suggested this is likely to change, he added.

The help people need to escape the juggernaut is intensive but slacks off. “Initially, most have to have all kinds of services,” said Hopper. “They have to have social workers, to be in a facility. But ultimately they’re going to need less and less of that as you set them up in a structured situation.”

Patricia Cavin has been on and off of Hopper’s caseload since 2004 for five low-level offenses; four of them involved prostitution. It took a long time, and a number of return trips, but last week everyone in court agreed it was time to close her file.

“Well, Patricia, you’ve really earned this,” Hopper told her. “You’ve done fantastic. When you started out in this court, you were in tough shape. But you’ve done well, you’ve stuck with it.”

Cavin didn’t sound so sure. She wasn’t worried about reoffending, she explained. Rather, she imagined she would miss the structure checking in at court had given her.

“Can I still call you once in a while just to say, ‘Hi’?” she asked the judge.

In response, Hopper broke into a wide grin. “You can just stop in and see me.”

Beth Hawkins writes about criminal justice, schools and other topics.

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