New Ky. Supreme Court commission will focus on mental health issues in justice system

·3 min read

Kentucky’s Supreme Court is launching a new commission that will hone in on mental health, and according to its new chairperson, recommend some key changes to the state’s criminal justice system.

“I’m excited to focus on mental health and substance use cases, but this will also be the first time there will be an all-hands-on-board effort to assess and improve the way the court handles intellectual disabilities,” Justice Debra Hembree Lambert said in the release.

“No group this broad and with this many resources has ever come together to tackle all three of these important issues,” she added.

Justice Lambert has been tapped by Chief Justice John Minton to lead the new judicial commission on mental health. Lambert brings experience as a certified suicide prevention coordinator and a former Kentucky Drug Court judge.

“I’m proud that the Kentucky Court of Justice is joining other state courts in addressing the growing mental health crisis within the justice system,” Minton said in the news release.

What is the panel’s mission and scope?

The new Kentucky Judicial Commission on Mental Health will potentially have a great deal of latitude.

According to Lambert, the body will examine where the court system touches cases involving mental health, substance use and intellectual disabilities, she said in the news release.

The commission will also be empowered to make recommended changes where appropriate.

Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr., Justice Debra Hembree Lambert and Gov. Andy Beshear pose for a photo at a news conference Thursday to announce the new Kentucky Judicial Commission on Mental Health. Lambert will serve as the panel’s chairperson.
Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr., Justice Debra Hembree Lambert and Gov. Andy Beshear pose for a photo at a news conference Thursday to announce the new Kentucky Judicial Commission on Mental Health. Lambert will serve as the panel’s chairperson.

That could include offering “best-practices training to judges, court personnel, law enforcement officers, mental health providers and community advocates as we implement a recovery oriented system of care model,” she said in her statement.

Some background on the commission

This is not the first time the commonwealth has tried to address severe mental illness in the people caught up in the state’s justice system. So far, its efforts haven’t been all that successful.

In 2017, lawmakers passed Tim’s Law over objections from then-Gov. Matt Bevin — even overriding his veto to do it.

It was the result of several years worth of lobbying from proponents and enables district court judges to order seriously mentally ill people — under certain circumstances — into a supervised outpatient treatment facility. That includes medication, counseling and enrollment in public assistance.

Gov. Bevin vetoed it at the time out of concern it would violate the rights of people who don’t pose a threat to themselves of the public, and he wasn’t alone in that opposition.

The Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy warned at the time that it would file a legal challenge on state constitutional grounds on behalf of anyone ordered into treatment as a result of the law. Since that time, Tim’s law appears to have been used only once, in Jefferson County.

What do we know about the commission’s membership?

“The commission membership will be composed of representatives from the judicial and legal communities; the juvenile, criminal and child protection systems; the legislature; the business community; organizations with a substantial interest in mental health matters; and other state and local leaders who have demonstrated a commitment to mental health issues affecting Kentuckians,” according to a Thursday release.

When asked for details about the commission’s membership, including the names of the people to be appointed and the terms they will serve, a spokesperson for the Kentucky Supreme Court declined to go into specifics, stating the group’s membership was still being “finalized.”

A list of members will be announced at a later date.

The commission is set to meet for the first time Sept. 22.