Mental health court for offenders
Few people involved in mounting a criminal defense make friends with the judge who oversees their case. Even fewer get a slice of cake and a certificate of completion when they finish their sentence through the justice system. In one Pittsburgh court, though, defendants are given all that and more, thanks to a special initiative to help them through their medical issues. Welcome to Allegheny County’s mental health court, a 14-year-old establishment designed to treat offenders, not simply punish them. Defendants are assigned to mental health court if their crimes appear to be rooted in a deeper mental issue. Instead of sending these convicts to jail, where their mental health problems are almost certain to worsen, the court strives to provide a future for those who suffer from these difficult conditions. In this special court system, defendants receive personalized attention from attorneys, probation officers and health care professionals, who check in by e-mail and in person. Options available to those convicted of crimes in mental health court include halfway houses or group homes instead of a simple jail sentence. Defendants spend months working through intensive treatment and therapy programs, all with the goal of returning these inmates into society with the tools they need to succeed. Judges and attorneys acknowledge that completing these programs is no easy task; hence, the cake, certificates and hugs. Inmates are called “graduates,” and they receive a significant amount of social reinforcement for their commitment to their own mental health. Instead of simply focusing on the criminal act that may be included in a defendant’s charges, attorneys and government leaders need to consider the context of the offense. For those with mental illnesses, overcoming the urge to break the law may be almost impossible without help. This court provides the right services for the people who need them most, showing that people who commit crimes are sometimes just ill.