CULLMAN, Ala. (AP) — A new mental health program is now a part of north Alabama judicial circuit, augmenting other programs already in place aimed at addressing the underlying issues that may contribute to nonviolent criminal behavior.

Overseen by presiding Circuit Judge Greg Nicholas in partnership with other Cullman County judges and WellStone Behavioral Health, Mental Health Court launched recently as a way to give eligible criminal offenders an alternative to jail time and, hopefully, repeat encounters with law enforcement.

Participants must apply to be considered for the program, which extends them an accountable path to avoiding incarceration while offering them help in receiving mental health services locally.

Cullman’s court system already holds specialized drug court and veterans court dockets for nonviolent offenders who show potential in benefiting from assistance with personal issues involving underlying substance abuse, mental health, and other conditions which could contribute to criminal activity.

Those who enter the Mental Health Court program must first plead guilty to their offenses, but they also have the opportunity to have their charges dismissed altogether by achieving court-prescribed milestones, which can include regular consultation with WellStone, over an agreed-upon period of time.

Mental health services through the program will be provided by WellStone, and a participant’s financial status won’t affect their eligibility. Any defendant who enters the program will be accommodated regardless of their ability to pay for services, thanks to funding support from the Alabama Department of Mental Health and a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“The Mental Health Court will help make our community safer by reducing the number of crimes committed by individuals suffering from mental illness,” Nicholas said in a release announcing the program.

“With early identification of those individuals charged with nonviolent offenses who are mentally ill, appropriate mental health treatment can be provided through a mental health court that monitors compliance with an individualized treatment plan. Without treatment, a person’s mental health condition will normally worsen, substantially increasing the likelihood of further involvement in the criminal justice system,” he said.

Addressing mental health issues as part of a defendant’s encounter with the criminal justice system marks a self-imposed court reform measure that’s emerging nationwide as an alternative to sending individuals with mental illness directly to jail — a punishment that can prove both costly and ineffective for those whose underlying issues persist.

The programs recognize that defendants suffering from mental illness are overrepresented in prison populations, with data from the National Alliance for Mental Illness indicating that two out of five incarcerated people in the U.S. have a history of mental illness.

Nicholas said the new program for people accused of nonviolent crimes is separate from the civil commitment process administered through probate court.