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After years of arrests and homelessness, he turned his life around with mental health court

Updated October 15, 2021 - 4:55 pm

Henry Snyder has become a completely different person in the past six years.

The 53-year-old lives in a small, one-bedroom apartment, so he’s no longer homeless. He has access to his mental health medication and has rebuilt relationships with his family.

After years of multiple arrests, Snyder said his life turned around after he was accepted into Clark County District Court’s mental health court program.

“Mental health court was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Snyder said recently.

Snyder is one of hundreds of people who have participated in the program, which started in 2003 as an alternative to prison sentences for defendants with chronic mental health problems. In the past five years, more than 200 participants have graduated from the program.

Caitlin Mroz, the program’s coordinator, said the court tries to halt the “revolving door” of participants going from psychiatric hospitals to jail and back.

“We really try to wrap them in services so that we can give them all the support that they need to not do that again,” Mroz said.

It takes about 15 months to two years to graduate from the program, depending on the participant’s charges and progress. For people who don’t have housing, the court finds them a group home or apartment.

Participants are subject to random visits from parole officers and can’t have drugs or alcohol. They’re required to attend therapy sessions, and when participants first start the program, they have to attend court once a week.

“We are really asking them to change old, bad habits and kind of become a whole new person in a lot of ways,” said District Judge Bita Yeager, who oversees the program.

Yeager said it’s ultimately cheaper for someone with a chronic or severe mental illness to go through the court program instead of prison. The program also works to prevent future arrests.

In 2014 and 2015, Snyder was arrested three times on domestic battery charges, although one of the cases later was dropped.

Snyder said his violent outbursts stemmed from paranoid thoughts. To escape the people he thought followed him, he would walk into random homes. He didn’t want to stay inside because he thought people were on the roof watching him.

He’s been in and out of psychiatric hospitals since he was 16, Snyder said. He was facing up to six years in prison for battery constituting domestic violence and battery with substantial bodily harm when his attorney instead recommended him for mental health court in 2015.

Snyder said he thrived in the program, and he hasn’t been arrested since he graduated in December 2017. He has a steady support network of family, case workers and therapists who help him remember to schedule appointments and stay on track.

“It still takes a lot of work, but I’m so much better than what I was,” he said.

A Summerlin man’s struggle

In cases of severe mental illness, the consequences of the criminal justice system might not be enough to keep someone out of jail or prison.

During a June preliminary hearing for Michael Spangenthal, a Summerlin man with a lengthy history of police standoffs, a judge acknowledged that the system wasn’t working for people like him.

“Unfortunately, in the system it’s the same story,” Justice of the Peace Eric Goodman said during the hearing, according to court transcripts. “How many people come in here with the exact same story? On their medication, terrific; off their medication, it’s a problem.”

Since 2016, Spangenthal has had six separate cases in Las Vegas Justice Court, all stemming from incidents in the Napa Hills in The Arbors neighborhood where he lived with his mother.

According to court records, his convictions include drug possession, assault on a protected person, resisting a public officer, lewdness and indecent exposure.

In 2019, neighbor Fatima Duncan created a change.org petition to get the man “permanent and immediate help.” The petition eventually generated 80 signatures.

In March of this year, Spangenthal again was arrested after he exposed himself to neighbors, including a 16-year-old girl, and threw items at officers who were called to the home, according to court documents. During the June preliminary hearing in the case, Christian Duncan testified that while he was angry at the situation, Spangenthal should not be in prison.

“Michael should be in a mental health institution,” Christian Duncan said, according to court transcripts. “Michael is on medication. If Michael doesn’t take his medication, well, there’s a big history, and you can see what happens.”

Christian Duncan could not be reached for comment on this story.

During the June hearing, Goodman told Christian Duncan that the criminal justice system could only do so much.

“There is no money. Nobody wants to raise taxes. No one wants to give money to help,” the judge said.

Yeager said the program has to focus on the people with the most severe mental illnesses.

“Unfortunately, because so many defendants have mental health issues and we have just a set number of dollars, our resources are limited, ” she said. “We really concentrate on the people who are high risk.”

After Spangenthal pleaded guilty to a felony count of resisting a public officer with a deadly weapon, he was sentenced in June to mental health court and ordered to stay away from the Summerlin neighborhood, court records show. Yeager declined to discuss specifics of his case.

‘Prison wasn’t going to help’

Rene Villalpando, a current participant in the program who is on track to graduate soon, said mental health court also helped her avoid a prison sentence.

The 45-year-old said drug use led to her being homeless for nearly five years. She suffered through an abusive relationship and began drinking. In 2017, she was in a casino when she grabbed someone’s luggage and tried walking away with it.

The subsequent arrest led to Villalpando pleading guilty to attempted grand larceny, and in September 2019 her sentence of probation and substance abuse counseling was amended for her to participate in the mental health court program, records show.

Villalpando said mental health court was the “opportunity of a lifetime” for her. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, and the program has helped teach her coping skills and has kept her sober.

“Prison wasn’t going to help me,” Villalpando said. “I would have never got the treatment that I needed, and I needed it really bad.”

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter.

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