Around two in five people who are incarcerated have a history of mental illness (37% in state and federal prisons and 44% held in local jails), according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The rate is even higher for youth in the juvenile justice system, around 70%, officials said during Friday’s videoconference panel discussion about the program.
The pre-conviction, diversionary mental health court was started in 2015 and is akin to Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, or ARD, which also offers qualifying suspects a chance to avoid prison and clear their records.
Open only to Northampton Count residents, the mental health court is capped at 25 participants at a time and lasts nine to 12 months — longer than ARD, which is capped at six months, said Davin Jurgensen, spokeswoman for District Attorney Terry Houck’s office.
Suspects charged with violent crimes, felony drug crimes or sex offenses are ineligible for consideration. Individuals also need to be competent enough to comply with the mental health court requirements.
Central to gaining admission to the program is a mental health-related basis for the crime the applicant is accused of having committed.
“What we have to do is we have to determine whether or not there is a nexus between the diagnosis and the behavior,” said Assistant District Attorney Abigail Bellfatto, who helps administer the program.
That connection is often obvious from talking with a suspect.
“Or you can kind of tell sometimes just from the charge,” said Rory Driscole, a private attorney and public defense attorney. “For example, as a public defender, I’ll get the complaint before I would go see the client and I can read a criminal complaint and sometimes I can identify that this sounds like there’s some mental health (issues) behind this.”
A physician’s certification of the mental illness is required, and it is up to the district attorney’s office who gets accepted. Community safety and ensuring crime victims are comfortable with the outcomes of cases are central to the decision-making, said Bellafatto.
If accepted, the suspect will go through three phases, beginning with weekly appearances before the judge, followed by semiweekly visits and finally once-monthly appearances as part of Phase III.
“It’s that checking-in, that judicial oversight that makes it different from, say, somebody just being on probation,” said Stephanie Steward, the county’s mental health treatment coordinator. “So they have all of the treatment services they need, they have the case management support, they have the support of their probation officer and they have the oversight of the court.”
Since everyone on the county’s mental health court team is an existing employee or contractor, the program does not require its own line item on the county budget, Steward said. Treatment programs are covered through the individual’s insurance provider or are otherwise available to any county resident, she said. The program has enjoyed the support of a $10,000 annual grant from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts for program incentives like graduation supplies or to cover drug-testing costs, Steward noted.
So-called problem-solving courts like mental health court and a separate recovery court for substance abuse represent a slowly evolving perspective, said Bellafatto from the DA’s office.
“Nothing changes immediately,” she said. “And I think one of the things we all have to realize is that if we are the ones who are addressing somebody’s mental health issues, it means that the system has already failed that person.”
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