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The Daily Tar Heel

Community Court Sentences Aim to Treat, Not Punish

Kenneth Wade Sigmon, 30, of Carrboro approached the bench from his seat in the third row of the courtroom.

He waited for Judge Patricia DeVine to dispose the single charge against him -- a misdemeanor count of resisting a public officer.

Like several other defendants in the courtroom the afternoon of March 14, Sigmon was not prosecuted.

In exchange, DeVine and Assistant District Attorney Jackie Perez wanted him to show that he had been attending counseling through the Orange-Person-Chatham Foundation for Mental Health and get assurance that he would continue to do so.

"I understand that you have quite a temper. I want you to learn to deal with your temper and not get so angry," DeVine said to Sigmon from the bench. "We want to be sure you are continuing to work with your counselor. In the meantime, if you do everything you're supposed to do, this case is going to get dismissed."

Sigmon's case was one of the last on the docket for the March session of community resource court in Chapel Hill.

Community resource court is a special Orange County court devised to address the needs of repeat misdemeanant offenders who suffer from mental illness or substance addiction problems. Its goal is rehabilitation, not retribution.

"What we call it is community resource court. What it is, is mental health court," said Marie Lamoureaux, project coordinator for state Judicial District 15-B, which includes Orange and Chatham counties.

"We emphasize a treatment disposition rather than a punishment disposition, but we use the leverage of the court to ensure that someone remains engaged in the treatment process," she said.

Orange County has held community resource court officially since May 2000, when it was created under the guidance of Orange County District Judge Joseph Buckner.

The court is held twice monthly --once in Chapel Hill and once in Hillsborough -- and is staffed primarily by attorneys and judges who have training in or knowledge of mental illness treatment.

As of January 2001, more than 60 people had come through the court, Lamoureaux said.

And the number of cases is increasing. Almost 20 cases were on the docket for the court's April session in Chapel Hill.

The district attorney's office sends cases to the court, but private attorneys, judges and people within the mental health community can recommend cases for the special court, said D.C. Rhyne, a case manager at the OPC Northside Clinic and OPC's liaison to the court.

In community resource court, offenders do not enter a plea, said Assistant Public Defender Timothy Cole.

"A person enters an admission of responsibility as opposed to a formal plea," he said. "And instead of having a trial, the prosecutor defers the process."

After a deferred prosecution is agreed on, "the court determines, along with myself and other people from the treatment community, what that person's needs may be," Rhyne said.

The court then sets conditions the offender must meet that commonly include counseling, alcohol or drug screening and an agreement by the defendant to stay out of trouble.

The defendant must meet the conditions of the court for a set period of time. After that, the state can dismiss the charges.

"It's mostly a three-month deferral of prosecution right now," Lamoureaux said. "But I think we're probably going to propose, at the minimum, six months, with a longer after-care period."

Lamoureaux said it is too soon in the process to determine whether the community resource court had been effective in rehabilitating defendants.

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The court has been successful in terms of the number of cases dismissed because defendants followed the conditions of the court, she said.

"But if you're looking at long-term goals such as people remaining in treatment, not reoffending and reaching stability, it's a little too early to tell."

Some offenders have returned to community resource court, said Glen Veit, a Hillsborough-based attorney who sometimes represents defendants in the court.

"In my experience, the kind of people we're dealing with that have serious mental health problems are going to continue to have serious mental health problems," Veit said.

But the value of the court is not diminished by their return, he said.

"This court is quite wonderful," Devine said. "What it does is bring to bear the community's resources to help people who are willing to own mental illness or substance abuse."

DeVine said she is sympathetic to the struggles of the people who come to community resource court, in part because a person close to her suffers from mental illness.

"We have no idea what some people go through just for shelter from the storm, let alone for a moment's peace," she said. "The whole point of the court is that as awareness in the community broadens, we have this resource available."

For Kenny Sigmon, the message seemed clear.

Looking in the direction of public defender Cole, Sigmon said, "Tim just wants to know that I'm staying out of trouble."

The City Editor can be reached at citydesk@unc.edu.

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