Mental Health Courts

How special courts can serve justice and help mentally ill offenders.

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Jeffrey Woods, 48, has been in and out of the courts.

By SHARE

Corrected 2/8/08: In an earlier version of this story, the name of Judge John Zottola was misspelled.

PITTSBURGH—Judge John Zottola's courtroom often feels more like a kindergarten award ceremony than part of the criminal justice system. Every Thursday on the fifth floor of a Romanesque-style courthouse, defendants shuffle to a podium to receive compliments, encouragement, and applause, whether it's for sticking to their treatment, wearing a nice outfit, or staying clean and sober. Even defendants who've slipped up on probation are unlikely to be thrown back in jail. Instead, most face a stern but kind warning, along with orders for more rigorous treatment or reporting schedules. "Don't make me look bad," Zottola tells them.

A soft touch is hardly standard for judges. But this is the Allegheny County Mental Health Court, an alternative to traditional criminal court, and it is precisely that sort of approach that has helped keep more and more mentally ill offenders out of jail. "Some people say, 'Is warm and fuzzy appropriate for the criminal justice system?'" says Zottola, a former county prosecutor. "But it really works."

For years, courts have treated the mentally ill with the same dispassion accorded any other defendant. The results have been devastating. More than twice as many people with mental illness live in prisons as in state mental hospitals. When they are confined to tiny cells, their conditions often worsen, increasing their propensity to act out. As a result, the mentally ill face disproportionately harsher discipline than do other inmates behind bars. A 2003 Human Rights Watch report said there were "deep-rooted patterns of neglect, mistreatment and even cavalier disregard for the well-being" of mentally ill inmates.

Trade-off. That attitude is slowly starting to change. Spurred by growing prison populations and high levels of recidivism, mental health courts now number about 175 nationwide. The premise is simple: Instead of being sentenced to jail or standard probation, defend-ants in mental health court are diverted to treatment programs and remain under regular supervision for a fixed length of time. After going through the Pittsburgh court, which started in 2001, only 10 percent of 223 graduates were rearrested, far below the 68 percent national average for all defendants.

"There are people who are mentally ill who do dangerous and violent things who should not be getting a pass because they are mentally ill," says Douglas Brawley, chief assistant for the mental health court in Broward County, Fla. "But many of the crimes, when you look at them, are manifestations of their mental illness."

Participation in the Pittsburgh program is voluntary. Only a handful of eligible defendants turn it down each year, usually because of the possibility of longer periods of court supervision or long waits for a bed in a treatment facility. While the program accepts those facing misdemeanor and felony charges, it bars sex offenders and most violent criminals. In exchange for their guilty pleas, defendants are put on probation and given a treatment plan. They also receive two months' rent and $200 for new clothing.

When she first appeared in Zottola's court, Tina Haddix was, to say the least, troubled. Now 35, Haddix had begun drinking at age 12 and was addicted to crack cocaine by her early 20s. Combined with untreated bipolar disorder and depression, her addiction only worsened. Haddix began stealing to feed her habit and soon found herself in jail. In 2005, Haddix was caught forging the checks of her parents and other elderly people. Facing more serious charges, she pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft and signed up for mental health court.

After a few months in residential treatment, Haddix moved to a halfway house for a year, then signed a lease for her own apartment. During her two years on probation, Haddix never slipped up. By the time she graduated from the court last fall, she had gotten financial aid to take classes to become a drug and alcohol counselor. She says she is certain about where she would be without the mental health court: "Dead or out on the street."