INDIANAPOLIS — Myron Foster smiled wide as he embraced the judge and accepted his new graduation certificate in a Marion County courtroom.
Foster is the latest former criminal defendant to complete Marion County's Mental Health Alternative Court. The program offers treatment instead of jail and helps people take control of the behavioral issues at the root of their criminal conduct.
"It makes me feel like I got a chance to really, you know, have somebody on my side and really strive for the better in life," Foster said, clutching that new certificate like a trophy.
This court is for folks who have experienced mental illness and addiction in their lives. The judge said many people in the program are dealing with serious trauma and may have grown up without the kind of family support and guidance that keeps most of us on track.
Defendants are often addicted and homeless. They've been struggling to cope with mental illness for years.
They volunteer to enter the program and are closely monitored by the judge, lawyers and court staff.
Participants take a lot of drug tests.
Unlike other courts where hearings are spaced out over weeks and months, mental health court participants appear before Marion Superior Court Judge Amy Jones once a week.
"That's the nice thing about this court that I don't have in my other dockets. I really get to know the individual," Jones said.
Those who are following the rules and staying off drugs get a round of applause from attorneys, court staff and the judge.
The "good group" also gets a chance to win a candy bar or a gift card.
"We have sanctions, we have incentives," Jones said. "I've had so many people that were just shocked that I've said to them how proud I am of them and their efforts... Because most people, you know, maybe they don't hear that every day, but they certainly don't hear it from a judge."
Foster said the positive feedback helped keep him on his difficult path toward recovery.
"It felt great because I grew up not having family on my mother's side, and my father's side of the family not really there for me because they didn't really understand my sickness," Foster said.
"And you know, it feels good to have someone have your back."
About one out of three Marion County jail inmates suffer from a mental illness, according to the 2016 Indianapolis Criminal Justice Reform Task Force.
Housing mentally ill inmates is expensive. The Marion County Sheriff's Office estimates that it costs taxpayers $92-a-day to keep a severely mentally ill inmate behind bars.
An Indiana University study found that defendants spent about 90 fewer days in jail after being placed in the mental health court. The study found the court saves taxpayers about $8,300 for each participant.
The court is funded by a $492,573 grant from the Indiana Department of Correction. No local tax money goes to the court.
The Mental Health Alternative Court admitted 60 participants in 2023; 19 graduated and 16 were terminated for failing to comply with the program's rules and requirements.
Foster is the court's 137th graduate since it launched in 2017.
Foster said he was battling mental illness and an addiction to crack cocaine when his case landed in court nearly two years ago.
He was on probation for an intimidation conviction when he was arrested again in January 2023. The new charge could have automatically sent Foster to prison for nearly two years.
Instead, with the help the court, Foster learned to control his illness and now has stability in his life.
Last week, Foster appeared in court for one last hearing.
The judge's bench was decorated for the occasion with a big banner that read "Congrats Grad."
"I'll tell you, you have followed every step. I've really enjoyed watching how you have really grown to be able to be self sufficient," Jones told Foster.
Foster's accomplishments in the program include completing in-patient treatment, moving to transitional housing and learning to use a smart phone.
"You use an app, you know? You're using your phone for all different kinds of things. You've become kind of high tech since you've been with us," Jones said.
"You're really in a good place in your recovery so we're excited for you and your next steps."
Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at firstname.lastname@example.org or on X/Twitter: @vicryc.
To learn more about the mental health court, visit their website.
If you or a loved one needs help battling addiction or mental illness, call 211 or visit the Indiana 211 website.