Thursday, April 20, 2006 | 8:18 a.m.
Terry Louis has lived a life of drugs, crime and mental illness.
The 48-year-old is a diagnosed bipolar schizophrenic who, for at least the last 12 years, has only casually taken his medication between a series of short-lived jobs and cocaine binges.
"I would get a job and make enough money to buy a car and get a place to live," Louis said. "But then I would relapse, use again, and then I would stop going to work, lose my job, car and my place. I'd become homeless and just use drugs on the street."
One day he entered a Las Vegas Albertsons and filled up a shopping cart with items he figured he could steal to fund his next fix. His plan was spoiled - he was caught and charged with felony grand larceny.
In the three years since, Louis' life has turned around, a change credited to Clark County's Mental Health Court.
Today, Louis will be honored as one of the court's first two graduates.
"He's a prime example of what's so right about this program," said District Judge Jackie Glass, who oversees the administration of the court. "He's totally turned his life around. I'm so proud of him, I feel like a proud mother."
Mental Health Court, which was created in December 2003, helps steer many mentally ill defendants in nonviolent felonies and some other cases toward treatment instead of prison.
The program targets the three factors of the person's situation: drugs, crime and mental illness. Those who are recommended for the program are put on two years of probation, ordered to take their medication, go to counseling and follow the program, which for many includes living in a group home. If they complete the program, the charges are dismissed.
When told he met the requirements for Mental Health Court, something clicked inside Louis. He said he "finally found the resolve I needed."
"I wanted it to work this time," Louis said. "I wanted to get off the drugs and get my mental health illness together. I was just never this serious about it."
Louis said his drug problem started 25 years ago with marijuana before he started using cocaine and ultimately, crack. Over the years he was jailed, sent to prison and was enrolled in four treatment programs - he said he graduated from two.
Louis, who moved to Las Vegas 10 years ago from Los Angeles, said even after he did a three-year stint in a California prison for possession of cocaine with the intent to sell, "the day I got out I used."
A dozen years ago, he was diagnosed as being bipolar schizophrenic; because of his drug abuse and mental health issue he was "dually diagnosed."
"I heard voices and would hallucinate," Louis said. "I'd be on the street and would see people following me and talking to me that weren't really there."
Louis said he would take medication from time to time, but once he relapsed he would stop taking it all together.
Mental Health Court officials work with defendants who fail.
"I had three lapses while I was in the program, but even though I was sent to jail they brought me back into the program. I can remember Judge (John) McGroarty sitting me down, and looking me in the eye telling me, 'You can't keep doing this because eventually you will run out of chances and end up in prison.' "
Louis said it was McGroarty, who presides over the court, and the court's "team" who finally got him on the road to recovery.
The "team" consists of McGroarty, prosecutors, defense attorneys, a social worker, a psychiatrist, parole and probation officials and the Salvation Army's licensed group home called Pathways.
McGroarty, who retired from the bench in January but will still preside over the court as a senior judge, said the program was established for people exactly like Louis.
"Terry (Louis) was right on the fringe of society, and every time he hit a rough spot he would overreact, relapse and end up in jail, and this is a pattern that would have ended up placing him in prison for many years if it continued," McGroarty said.
The judge said that during the program Louis definitely had his "ups and downs." The key point was his third relapse.
McGroarty said Louis began using drugs and fled to Los Angeles. The judge said the "team" met and found a way to contact Louis, sent him money for a bus ticket and met him at the bus station in Las Vegas when he returned.
"For Terry and many of the people in the program, they have never had anyone in the world pulling for (or) telling them they have worth," McGroarty said. "I think we provide that along with the medication and counseling, and it's working. You can see that in Terry's case."
A recent report from the court shows the two-year results of the program reflected a 64 percent reduction in days in jail and a 75 percent reduction in new arrests.
Glass said with the proper funding the court could expand from the 75-person maximum it has now to 250 to 300 - she said the court will ask the Legislature next year for the $3 million to $5 million to do so.
Glass stressed that the No. 1 need the program has is the same the mental health community has as a whole. "We need more beds, places to house these people so they don't leave jail and are back on the streets."
During the last 17 months Louis has been drug-free and is taking his medication.
"They acknowledge when you are doing what's required, but at the same time that freedom gives you a chance to fail and relapse if you aren't serious," Louis said. "It's give and take, and it has worked for me."