Doing justice to mental health crisis

Clerk of courts revives Generous Juror program, directs donated pay to organization that deals with mental illness issues that confront courts, deputies

THE CLERK OF COURTS’ GENEROUS JUROR program in Ozaukee County is being revived, allowing jurors to donate their jury pay to benefit a local charity. NAMI Ozaukee, which helps address mental illness in the county, was selected by Clerk of Courts Connie Mueller (right) to be this year’s beneficiary. Pictured with Mueller were Sheriff Christy Knowles and NAMI Ozaukee President Michael Weber. NAMI helps train local law enforcement in how to deal with people experiencing a mental health crisis. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
DAN BENSON
Ozaukee Press staff

In an effort to strike a blow against what officials call a mental health crisis in the county, Ozaukee County Clerk of Courts Connie Mueller has announced the revival of the courts’ Generous Juror program, which allows jurors to donate their pay for jury service to a local charity chosen by her office.

Mueller said the recipient this year will be NAMI Ozaukee, the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The amount of funding is unknown but will likely amount to hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

Current pay for jurors is $25 for half a day and $50 for a full day, plus mileage, Mueller said.

“Over the past years, it had averaged to approximately 30% of jurors donating their time,” Mueller said.

She said it’s unknown exactly how much money will be raised because it’s not  known how many jury trials will be held.

The program was put on a hiatus due to the pandemic in 2020.

“In reviewing my office goals, this was an area I decided I would like to work on improving,” said Mueller, who was elected in 2022, succeeding Mary Lou Mueller.

Connie Mueller chose NAMI as the beneficiary because of the rise of mental health cases seen by the Sheriff’s Office and in the courts.

“Over the years, the court system has seen a rise in mental health issues and has witnessed the struggle by many citizens throughout the county,” she said.

“As I was researching different nonprofit organizations that assist mental health in our county, I read NAMI’s mission statement and reviewed many of the organization’s newsletters and decided to suggest this organization to my Public Safety Committee,” which oversees her office.

Past beneficiaries have been Freedom Life Skills, Advocates of Ozaukee and the Ozaukee County Jail Literacy Program.

Mueller said she hopes the money raised will be significant.

“I am going to really market it by discussing the program when the staff and I welcome the jurors and will have NAMI Ozaukee newsletters and brochures available for the jurors to review,” she said.

NAMI Ozaukee President Michael Weber said he is grateful for Mueller’s decision and said it will help further cement NAMI’s efforts with county health departments and the Sheriff’s Office.

“We have a strong partnership,” he said.

NAMI has been involved in training law enforcement and other first responders on how to handle calls that involve people experiencing a mental health crisis.

“It’s quite a commitment. They’re not clinicians, but we teach them techniques and practices” to help de-escalate  situations and help people get help, he said.

“It’s been very successful,” Weber said.

He said those people who police or health officials encounter are not always suffering from a diagnosed condition but may just be reacting to a stressful situation.

“Mental health is a continuum. It’s just where they’ve landed on that continuum,” he said.

Weber, the former superintendent of the Port Washington-Saukville School District, said he became more involved with NAMI when he retired.

“I’ve always been interested in helping people who are struggling,” he said. “As superintendent I built relationships with law enforcement and the county.”

Ozaukee County Sheriff Christy Knowles and county Health and Human Services Director Liza Drake have said they have seen an increase in the number of incidents involving people in mental health crises in recent years, especially since the pandemic.

For instance, nearly two-thirds of Ozaukee County jail inmates have been diagnosed with a mental disorder, officials say, and they often have no plan for what to do or how to live once they are released.

Weber said more people are being diagnosed with mental health issues, but the real reason for the increase appears to be the times in which people are living.

“People are struggling more,” he said, “It’s a very challenging time for everybody. Most of us are resilient enough to endure these times. More people are lacking that resilience.”

Weber also agreed with Knowles and Drake that increasing substance abuse has played a role, although Weber was quick to point out that not everyone suffering from mental illness abuses drugs or other substances.

The Ozaukee County Board last week approved funding for a co-responder program in which a social worker would accompany a Sheriff’s deputy, who has received training from NAMI, in responding to mental health crisis situations.

Funds for the two-member team will come from a 2024 State Opioid Response Grant, derived from a legal settlement with drug companies and retailers who, according to court documents, “flooded the market with highly addictive drugs claiming they were safe and efficacious for long-term use, manufactured studies to support these false claims and knowingly misrepresented the addictive nature of these drugs.”

For more information on NAMI Ozaukee, go to https://namiozaukee.org/, to  Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/namiozaukee or call (262) 243-3627.

NAMI also operates what Weber called a “warm line” at (262) 243-3627 for over-the-phone consultations and a hot line at 988 for crisis calls.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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