A state House panel Tuesday endorsed the creation of special courts to divert nonviolent offenders with mental health problems into treatment programs instead of prisons.

The Administration of Criminal Justice Committee, without objection, approved Senate Bill 71 sponsored by state Sen. Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge.

The bill now heads to the House floor for debate.

The legislation would authorize district courts to create divisions that would deal with offenders who have mental health problems, much like there are drug courts today. The mental health courts would be established by rule by each district court. They would not be mandatory.

Judge Raymond Childress, of the 22nd Judicial District, said the court where he sits covering St. Tammany and Washington parishes already has a mental health division. Another exists in Orleans Parish, he said.

“We realize they work, and we are committed to them,” said Childress, who represented the Louisiana District Judges Association.

Childress said those in place have managed to find funding to operate, and judges within in them have volunteered to serve.

State Rep. Chris Hazel, R-Pineville, asked how the individuals were determined as being eligible.

“A lot of the individuals who are identified are individuals who are in the court system who the court system is already familiar with,” Broome said. “You find them as repeat nonviolent offenders who are often taking up beds in many of the jails when they could be sent to resources and get treatment.”

Deborah Duckworth, facility manager of the Mental Health Center of the Capital Area Human Services District, said many of the individuals don’t have the support to stay on their medications.

“They have been arrested, rearrested ... They end up in jail taking up a lot of space, a lot of finances and not getting the treatment they really do require,” Duckworth said.

The idea behind the mental health court is to get the mentally ill “directed toward the mental health center and get them in a program, keep them on their medicine, enroll them in a program to keep them stable,” she said. “They need support and individuals keeping them on track.”