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Indiana Supreme Court takes on behavioral health crisis, uptick in caseload

 Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush talks about the court’s work on behavioral health and accessibility on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

“I love 988,” chief justice says

The criminal justice system is the primary referrer to substance use disorder treatment and largest provider of mental health care — but the judiciary is doing its part to change that, Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush said Thursday.

“I love the direction the Indiana judiciary is going,” she told reporters. “I love the fact that we’re working on the behavioral health … because we’d better do better than 70% of people in jail with a substance abuse or mental health issue.”

Rush also highlighted a post-pandemic recovery in caseload, changes in technology and transparency and a dragging bar passage rate in its latest annual report.

Tackling behavioral health

She said over her career, she’s encountered many a parent grateful for their child’s arrest — because through the justice system, the child could access help.

“I think that’s problematic,” Rush said.

“I think for a long time, like 40 years ago, judges just decided the case then got out the door,” she said. “Now we’re saying, ‘We’re players in our community.’ I tell judges, ‘you’ve got a superpower.’”

She said Indiana has trained its judges on substance abuse and mental health, with best practices for different people: children, pregnant women, and so on.

And judges are encouraged to be proactive: to find ways to divert people away from the system and toward resources.

Rush additionally offered 988 as an effective strategy.

The national suicide and crisis hotline is an alternative to 911’s traditional police and fire response. It launched in July.

Indiana has put $133.6 million in federal funds, along with $100 million in its latest biennial budget, into the hotline. Lawmakers considered — but didn’t add — a fee on cell phones that would fund 988 similarly to 911.

“I love 988,” Rush said. “And I would love to see permanent funding for 988.”

She said the hotline means that crisis intervention teams respond to behavioral health crises “as opposed to handcuffs and incarceration.”

The court also brought together about 800 people from every Hoosier county during a mental health summit last October, according to the report.

Rush noted that those local units also have more financial resources for substance use help through the state’s opioid settlement with manufacturers and distributors.

Caseload, cameras and exam-passers

Cases are back on the rise after a pandemic-era drop, according to the report.

The court in 2022 received 717 cases and disposed of 693, as opposed to the 634 received and 633 disposed of the year prior. But that’s still down from previous totals in the 800s and 900s.

It also oversaw changes in technology and access — most notably, ditching a blanket ban on cameras in courtrooms in favor of allowing judges to decide for their own courtrooms.

Additionally, parties to cases can now also access documents online in their own proceedings. Lawyers have had that added access since 2017.

And the court’s staff is hard at work on a massive jail management system integrating data from across the state, although they’ve hit some snags.

“It is the biggest project we’ve ever taken on,” Rush said of the system, dubbed INjail. And it’s likely years away from going live and public, according to court spokeswoman Kathryn Dolan.

Additional courts in 2022 joined a separate case management pilot that aims to speed up simple cases and allow more time to complex cases. That year, three counties — Marion, Monroe and Vigo — began piloting text message reminders in certain family cases.

But the state’s severe attorney shortage saw little improvement in the report: 389 of 617 applicants passed the bar exam in 2022, or 63%. That’s down from 2021’s 65%, but slightly up from previous rates closer to 60%.

Passage rates peaked in 2020, but technical complications during the pandemic-era remote exam meant it was open-book and without any live monitoring or proctoring, according to a court order.

This article originally appeared on Indiana Capital Chronicle.

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