TOPEKA — Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert looked back Wednesday on her first week as a district court judge 30 years ago and her interaction with a man already well known to courthouse colleagues.
The man, who she referred to as ET, wasn’t violent at that time but routinely would stop taking medication, became unstable, encounter law enforcement officers and return to court. ET would be held at the jail, placed on drug therapy, regain stability and be released into the community. In a few weeks or months, Luckert said, ET would start the cycle all over again. This treadmill of life did not serve his interests of her or those of Topekans.
Luckert told hundreds gathering for a two-day conference on mental illness that she recently came upon a handwritten motion filed with the Supreme Court. She recognized the unique penmanship. It was in ET’s hand from her. Decades after her initial encounter, ET had yet to break free from the yoke.
“I look back at that and think, we could have done better,” the chief justice said. “We needed to do better. Not only for ET, but for thousands of Kansans like him. Our jails and detention centers across the country are the largest providers of mental health services. How do we break that cycle?”
The 2022 Kansas Mental Health Summit, the first of its kind in Kansas, brought together more than 600 in-person and online registrants. The roster included judges, legislators, attorneys, court services officers, community corrections officers and representatives from the executive branch, mental and medical health disciplines, law enforcement and first responders.
The gathering also featured brief remarks by Gov. Laura Kelly, Senate President Ty Masterson and House Speaker Ron Ryckman.
Ice on power lines
Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said the summit could be a catalyst for change. He said the collaboration and consideration of alternatives should push boundaries. He offered an example of out-of-the-box thinking that, at first, sounded silly. In the Pacific northwest, he said, the problem of ice on electric lines plagued consumers for years. Individual solutions fell short, Ryckman said, so a meeting was called. No idea would be dismissed.
Someone suggested bears be trained to climb poles, perhaps incentivized by a pot of honey at the top, so movement of the hefty animals would shatter ice dangling from power lines. Another person recommended helicopters be used to deposit honey atop the poles. He said that eventually led to a plausible solution that involved flying helicopters close to the lines so bursts of wind from rotor blades would dislodge the ice.
“I don’t think our answers are as easy as ice on powerlines and helicopters,” Ryckman said. “I know the answers are in this room and online.”
He urged participants to make certain the right hand and left hand of the mental health reform movement remained connected as strategies for keeping mentally ill people out of jails were considered, developed and implemented.
Kelly, a state senator before elected governor in 2018, worked after high school at a New York camp for troubled adolescents and after college at an Illinois minimum security facility for boys. Following graduate school, she accepted a job caring for severely mentally ill youth at Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center in New York.
“Those experiences really did open my eyes,” Kelly said. “They taught me that successfully addressing the mental health crisis required a collective approach over a long period of time.”
She said Kansas had made progress in recent years, but had much left to do in terms of expanding mental health services to Kansans from childhood to adulthood and in urban and rural areas of the state. The criminal justice system isn’t equipped to provide services that ought to come from a comprehensive system designed for people suffering mental illness, she said.
“For too long,” the governor said, “those with mental illness were stigmatized and considered untreatable. The reality is the opposite. The vast majority of those with mental illness are highly treatable. It is the compassionate and humane thing to do to provide them with the help they need.”
Masterson, the GOP president of the Senate from Andover, said he couldn’t recall another time in which the three branches of state government worked jointly on a vexing societal challenge.
“That shows you the significance. Kind of that all hands on deck,” he told conference attendees. “You see this issue, many of you, live and in-person. In-living color. Firsthand. First responders. Health care workers. The judicial system sees it in the courts.”
Masterson asked those committed to working toward improvements in mental health of Kansans not to be limited by provincial ideas or to focus only on suggestions tied to spending more tax dollars. He said financial investments were part of the answer, he said, but not the end all.
“It feels to me like we are making the problem worse on many fronts in our society — in this post-modern society where we reject faith a lot of times, reject the healthiest versions of family. We have scores of fatherless children. We go to social media and … push people towards self-satisfaction versus societal interests,” Masterson said.
The idea of a statewide summit emerged when District Court Judge Robert Wonnell attended a similar regional meeting three years ago in Deadwood, South Dakota. That summit was the work of a national task force involving the National Center for State Courts, the Conference of Chief Justices, the Conference of State Court Administrators, and the State Justice Institute.
“I have to ask myself, what am I doing as a judge, in my court and in partnership with other professionals in my community, to make sure that our justice system addresses issues as early as possible in the process and ultimately reduces recidivism? Enhancing that system not only benefits the individual with a mental illness, but ultimately every Kansan,” he said.