Mental health court keeps non-violent offenders out of jail

SunGazette.com 

By Morgan Meyers

Non-violent mentally ill offenders should be given psychiatric treatment instead of jail time – that’s the philosophy behind Lycoming County’s Mental Health Court, according to Judge Richard A. Gray, who oversees the program.

“Mental health court helps alleviate prison overcrowding,” Gray said.

The specialized probation program is funded by the state Department of Welfare, according to Gray. To qualify, an offender must be diagnosed with a mental illness, plead guilty to their charges and agree to comply with the conditions of their supervision, such as taking medication.

“Getting them to take their medications is the name of the game if you want to keep these folks off the streets and functioning,” Gray said.

Matching mental health court participants to appropriate housing is an ongoing challenge. Due to certain court decisions and legislation, many residential treatment facilities have been closed, according to Gray.

“If they have families, their families are pretty much done with them,” Gray said. “We have to do a lot of sweet-talking to get mom and dad to let them move back in.”

Fifteen to twenty offenders are under mental health court supervision at any given time, according to Gray. Diagnoses range from psychosis to major depression and most participants are charged with minor crimes such as retail theft.

In addition to Gray, the mental health court team consists of two probation officers, two mental health case workers, one drug and alcohol case worker, one bail officer and one representative from West Branch Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission, he said.

“People with severe mental health issues quite often self-medicate,” Gray said. “There’s a lot of spill-over (between drug court and mental health court).”

Determining whether an offender is primarily suffering from a drug or a mental health problem can be a “chicken-or-the-egg”-type connundrum, according to Gray.

While Gray’s “ultimate goal” is to rehabilitate participants to the point of being able to find employment, “not many of them are capable of holding a job,” he said. It may take over a year to stabilize someone on medication, according to Gray.

If an offender commits another crime while under supervision, sanctions such as additional community service are imposed, according to Gray.

“If it’s bad enough, we have to put them in jail,” Gray said. “They do a great job at the prison but it’s not exactly the kind of place where you get the best mental health care.”

Not only is access to the prison psychiatrist extremely limited, these non-violent offenders may be exposed to “every kind of criminal you could think of,” according to Gray.

Mental health court provides “a great deal of hand-holding” – enough to keep some mentally ill offenders out of jail and functioning successfully in society, according to Gray.