Champion of the Courts
Judge McCune honored for his role in implementing Mental Health and Veteran Treatment programs.
“TOP SECRET” was the subject line on the email inviting people to a surprise gathering on Tuesday, Oct. 25, at the Marion County Judicial Court Building to honor Judge James “Jim” McCune for initiating the Mental Health Court in 2009 and the Veteran’s Treatment Court in 2012.
As people kept streaming into the jury assembly room, it became evident that a large number of people had not only kept the secret, but wanted to be there in person to pay their respects.
McCune was an Assistant State Attorney in Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit for 13 years before he was appointed a county court judge by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002. In 2004, 2010 and 2016, he was elected to serve 6-year terms. He announced last December that he would not seek reelection when his term expires at the end of this year.
McCune was the presiding judge for five years over Mental Health Court and for seven years over Veterans Treatment Court. Mental Health Court is currently under Judge Thomas Thompson and Veterans Treatment Court is under Judge Lisa Herndon.
On Tuesday, there was nothing but admiration for McCune for his role in implementing the two programs, which are referred to as problem-solving courts.
Addressing the room full of court officials, elected officials, mentors and many others, Alina Stoothoff, Court Operations Consultant, Problem Solving Courts, 5th Judicial Circuit, said, “This is not Judge McCune’s retirement, this is out of gratitude for him having started two of our problem-solving courts in Marion County, of which we now have 11. The 5th Judicial Circuit now has 21 problem solving courts, more than in any other circuit in the state. A lot of that, at least in Marion County, is because of Judge McCune.”
“Judge McCune worked with stakeholders and completed a community needs assessment and one recommendation was implementing a Mental Health Court,” explained Court Coordinator Regina Lewis. “It was also the consensus of some judges, treatment providers and attorneys that there was a part of the population that really needed to be treated, especially when the reason for their incarceration was due to mental illness. This population had much more difficulty navigating the criminal justice system and often stayed in jail longer, at a much higher cost due to medical needs.”
Stoothoff noted that many veterans were not assimilating back into society, had a high suicide rate and were ending up in the criminal justice system rather than being treated.
“After a grant was retained, Judge McCune accompanied a group from Marion County to Buffalo, New York, and observed the first Veterans Court team in the U.S. When they returned, they formed a management team to start and oversee a Veterans Treatment Court in Marion County,” she said.
Mental Health Court has a docket of non-violent misdemeanor defendants and closely supervises program participants while linking them to treatment, and social, financial and other supportive services. Veteran’s Treatment Court assists defendants with treatment needs associated with substance use disorder or dependency, mental health and other issues. It handles misdemeanor cases, felony cases, cases in pre-trial diversion and cases in which sentences have been imposed. A mentor is assigned to each participant.
To date, the Mental Health Court has served more than 548 participants and the Veterans Treatment Court more than 192 veterans.
“Judge, it really is because of you that we have these problem-solving courts in Marion County,” said Judge Thompson, in addressing McCune.
“It’s easy now. We have statutory authority; the Legislature has recognized the value of these programs to communities,” Thompson said to those gathered. “But back in 2008, 2009, when Judge McCune decided he was going to be the one to make this happen, this was not always an easy sell, to law enforcement, to other members of the judiciary.”
But, Thompson continued, “These are critically important programs. When you talk about our combat veterans, our service veterans, the men and women who have served our country, when they come back, they are not always in one piece mentally or physically and they do find themselves in trouble. If we give them a chance to account for what they have done wrong and to have justice served and give these people a chance to fix themselves and to be productive members of the community so they can have stable families, a job, a future… and for the service they have given their country, maybe we can give back to them for a change. Well, we wouldn’t be able to do so if it wasn’t for Judge McCune.”
Thompson told McCune that he was grateful he came to him in 2014 and asked him to oversee the Mental Health Court.
“We serve a special population. For once, maybe the criminal justice system can try to change their lives and not just throw them back in jail. To get them medication, counseling, sometimes stable housing, which can be a game changer,” Thompson said.
“And you can look at the taxpayers, because if they’re not in jail and are getting the things they need to keep them from breaking the law and being back in jail, we don’t have to pay for incarceration, all the expenses to the taxpayers,” Thompson added. “But I like to think the criminal justice system should be about more than the bottom line, but about the big picture. And we think about the community holistically; what is best for everybody, not just offenders. These program, I think, are a shining example of what the criminal justice system can do … Judge McCune, thank you for the vision and for the perseverance and for being willing to take the slings and the arrows from detractors and naysayers. We should all be grateful for your leadership, your guidance and your hard work. It wasn’t always easy, but these programs are a success.”
In presenting a plaque to McCune, Lewis said, “On behalf of everybody here, I just can’t tell you what a champion you have been, not just for developing and implementing these programs, but how you have impacted so many people, the lives you have saved. You truly are a champion. You set a standard.”
During many of the introductions and remarks, McCune kept darting around the room to give greetings and hugs. When it was his turn to speak, he finally stood still at the front of the room.
“I’m deeply touched,” he said. “It’s about people: our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, the guy next door, the one you went to school with. They are fellow members of the community. And none of this can be done by one person, it takes us all together to just care… to be human and care for someone else, whatever their circumstance is.”
He shared some details about starting the Mental Health Court and said the team wanted to make a difference, “not just have words on an organizational chart.”
He said that upon implementation, “We knew we were being scrutinized, appropriately. We had a responsibility to be accountable.”
He said it was “really, truly devastating,” when he learned that one of the program participants had been arrested.
“So much of the rational we shared to get buy in was that this is about addressing recidivism … I said we failed, now they’re going to pull the plug,” he recalled.
“Alina said, ‘No, you are seeing this wrong, you are measuring your notion of success in an erroneous fashion.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And she said, ‘Well, you’ve got someone who has been arrested 10 times in six months and now they’ve gone nine months with just one arrest.’ And that kind of sunk in,” he said.
“And the point I want to make is, we can’t give up,” he said firmly. “If we’re talking about people and lives, and lives in our community and for the sake of our community, we need to persist. And that may mean a lot of bumpy roads.”
In a touching moment, McCune’s wife, Jessica, joined him in front of the crowd.
“She is a licensed mental health counselor and a nurse,” he said. “She used to challenge me. She said, ‘Why do you spend all this time, all these resources, on the mop up… why don’t you make a difference?’”
She immediately turned her face to him and replied, “Thanks for listening.”
Turning to the audience, she said, “When I first met Jim and was learning about what he did, he told me that the pillars of the community are capable of a heinous crime and the most hardened criminal incarcerated has many redeeming qualities. So, yes, the law and the courts are black and white, but there is lots of room for hope and for compassion and grace.”
“And the joy of collaboration, of working together,” he chimed in as he spread his arms wide and gazed around the room.