updated 5/10/2010 10:40:58 AM ET 2010-05-10T14:40:58

Officials in Hattiesburg say Mississippi's first behavioral health court will be located in the city, a newspaper reported.

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The new program will specifically target the special needs of misdemeanor offenders, suffering with mental health issues, according to a report Monday in The Hattiesburg American.

"We are finishing up the planning right now," said Dorothea Van Buren, coordinator of the behavioral health court.

Van Buren said the program should begin this summer. The program was made possible through a $228,300 grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The grant will fund the behavioral health court for two years.

The City Council accepted the award after hearing from officials with the partnering agencies, which include the Hattiesburg Police Department, the University of Southern Mississippi, Municipal Court and Pine Belt Mental Healthcare Resources.

The behavioral court will offer treatment and uniquely designed initiatives for those who come through the Municipal Court system.

"This will give individuals suffering from mental illness an opportunity to get much needed treatment, which in turn will significantly reduce their contact with the criminal justice system," said Rita Porter, director of adult services at Pine Belt Mental Healthcare Resources.

Court officials told the City Council that many times minor criminals can get loss in the shuffle of the court system. Hattiesburg Police Chief Frazier Bolton said his officers often encounter nonviolent criminal offenders suffering with mental illnesses.

Van Buren said experts at Pine Belt Mental Health will evaluate each candidate for the program and determine whether offenders are in fact suffering from mental illnesses before they are accepted into the program by the Municipal Court judges.

"I'll be making sure they stay on track with what the judge and the team advise them to do," Van Buren said. "Once they complete the program there's a possibility they'll still be able to get their treatment from Pine Belt, and their charges will be dismissed from Municipal Court."

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Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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