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  • DA John Morganelli Calls for Mental Health Court- February 10, 2014








    EASTON, PENNSYLVANIA    18042-7492



    Area Code   (610) 559-3020

    Fax (610)   559-3035 



                 DISTRICT ATTORNEY JOHN MORGANELLI PROPOSES                   


                According to a study done by Eslinger and Kennard in 2010, there are more mentally ill citizens in prisons and jails in the United States then in hospitals.  Pennsylvania has the sixth highest total number of prisoners in jails and state prisons.  Approximately 16% of that total number of prisoners has a mental illness.  It is estimated that 26.2% of Americans age 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder.  Many studies suggest that more than 2 million times annually,  people with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression, are arrested and booked into jails in the United States.  People with mental illnesses remain incarcerated 8 times longer than people without mental illnesses arrested for the same exact charge.            Unfortunately, today, more and more mentally ill people  are being sent to jail instead of receiving the mental health care they need.

    I am happy to be joined this afternoon by Laura Savenelli Northampton County Re-entry Coordinator from Family Answers, Doctor William B. Vogler Executive Director of Family Answers, and Wendy Heatley Deputy Administrator for the Northampton County Department of Human Services Mental Health Department.  Today, I am announcing, my intention, with their help, to lead an effort to establish a Mental Health Court (MHC) in Northampton County.  Mental Health Courts are one of many initiatives launched in the past number of decades to address the large number of people with mental illnesses involved in the criminal justice system.  While the factors contributing to this problem are complicated, the over representation of people with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system have as noted above been well documented.  Without adequate treatment while incarcerated or linkage to community services upon release, many people with mental illnesses often cycle repeatedly through the criminal justice system.  This frequent involvement with the criminal justice system can be devastating for these individuals and their families and also impact upon public safety and government resources.  Mental Health Courts represent one response to the disproportion of number of people with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system.  Like Drug Courts and other “problem solving courts”, after which they are modeled, Mental Health Courts move beyond the criminal courts traditional focus on case processing to address the root causes of behaviors that bring people before the Court.  They work to improve outcomes for all parties including the individuals charged with crimes, the crime victims, family members of those who are mentally ill and the community in general.

    Mental Health Courts vary widely in several aspects including the target population, charges that are accepted, plea arrangements, intensity of supervision, program duration and type of treatment available.  Essentially, a Mental Health Court is a specialized Court docket for certain defendants with mental illness that substitutes a problem solving model for traditional criminal court processing.  Participants are identified through mental health screening and assessments and voluntarily participate in a judicially supervised treatment plan developed generally by a team of court staff and mental health professionals.  Incentives reward adherence to the treatment plan or other court conditions.  Non adherence may be sanctioned and success or graduation is defined according to pre-determined criteria.  The majority of Mental Health Court participants suffer from serious mental illnesses.  Mental illness is a general term that includes a range of psychological disorders.  This includes conditions that involve long term and profound impairment and functioning – for example, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder (formally called manic depression), severe depression, and anxiety orders.  Some Mental Health Courts accept individuals with a broader array of disabling conditions then mental illness alone.  While developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, and dementias are not included in federal statutory and regulatory definitions of serious mental illness, they may be the cause of behavioral problems that result in criminal justice contact and may also co-occur with serious mental illnesses.  Each Mental Health Court determines how flexible to be on eligibility requirements and, when screening an individual who does not precisely fit standard criteria, whether to accept participants on a case by case basis.  Although addictive disorders are considered mental illnesses and are included in the American Psychiatric Associations Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, their diagnosis, treatment interventions and providers differ from those for non addictive mental illnesses.  Nevertheless, the majority of people with mental illnesses involved with the criminal justice system – approximately 3 out of 4 – also suffer from a co-occurring substance use disorder.  As a result, Mental Health Courts must often address this population and treat both mental illness and substance use disorders in a comprehensive and integrated fashion.  As recently as January 28th of this year, new data was released linking severe mental illness and substance use.  The Washington University of School of Medicine St. Louis and the University of Southern California jointly conducted a study of nearly 20,000 individuals, 9,142 of which were diagnosed with sever psychotic illnesses, collected over a 5-year period.  The study established what many people already knew that is that the overlap of mental illness with addictive disorders is not unique.  It was concluded that mental illnesses can lead to drug abuse.  Individuals with overt, mild or even sub clinical mental disorders may abuse drugs as a form of self medication.  The result from the study conclusively established that mental illness and substance use needs to be studied and treated together not as individual ailments.

    This is not a new idea, nor is it my idea.  There are presently 17 Mental Health Courts in Pennsylvania.  Communities that have implemented a Mental Health Court system have found that the pros outweigh the cons.  Mental Health Courts improve mental health outcomes and reduce recidivism among offenders who partake in the Court program.  Participants are less likely to repeat a criminal activity because they have a stable life that was facilitated by the Mental Health Court.  Minor criminal acts are not worth the amount of money that tax payers spend for each inmate when they have a 25-35% chance of reoffending.  Many do not have a stable job or home to go back to at the end of the day and resort to desperate measures of criminal activity to avoid an impoverished life style.  Many resources are available for mental health supports that are not being used.  The Allentown State Hospital was closed due to significant decline in funding while psychiatric needs, and many patients have rejoined the community.  A Mental Health Court could help stabilize the mental health needs of citizens who do not have the inclination to reach out for help.  It represents a humane approach to dealing with individuals suffering from mental disorders and provides the defendant the opportunity to take responsibility for his actions.  Introducing a Mental Health Court offers a regular process of judicial review for mentally ill cases.  The participants are offered services of transitional residential accommodation that gives them to have access to therapeutic, vocational educational activities which increase the likelihood of success and mental health recovery.  Mental Health Courts are not for the creation of new treatment services but to create more efficient and effective linkages to existing services.  It can be an effective and cost efficient solution.

    The individuals here with me today will work with the Northampton County Criminal Justice Advisory Board and the judges of the Court of Common Pleas in Northampton County, to design a unique, innovative structure for a Northampton County Mental Health Court.  I will leave the details of the structure and the operations to those experts in Court Administration and mental health to develop.  As District Attorney, however, I will request that any plan involve the following components:

    (1)  Addressing the Needs of our Veterans

    — I will insist that a component of a NCMHC specifically address veterans who have mental illness that often leads them into the criminal justice system.  Our veterans have put their lives on the line for our freedom and we need to do everything possible to help them when they return and often deal with mental illness caused by the trauma of war, physical injury, and their overall service to our country.

    (2)  Exclusion of Primary Substance Use Disorders

    — Although I recognize that there is an overlap often between substance abuse and mental illness, I want a NCMHC that focuses on mental illness.  This means, individuals with an Axis I or Axis II mental health diagnosis.  Although “drug courts” have their purpose, I do not want the NCMHC to be a drug court.  Important differences exist in the principles and operation of drug courts and Mental Health Courts.  Mental Health Courts are not merely drug courts for people with mental illness.  The fact is that mental illness, unlike drug use, is, in and of itself, not a crime.  Mental Health Courts admit participants with a wide range of charges, while drug courts focus on drug related offenses generally.  Where as drug courts concentrate on addiction, Mental Health Courts must accommodate a number of different mental illnesses, and so there is greater variability among treatment plans and monitoring requirements for participants then in drug courts.  Although I recognize there will be some overlap, I am hopeful that the Mental Health Court remains focused primarily on mental illness.

    (3)  Exclusion of Felony Sex Offenses, Felony Crimes of Violence, and Felony Drug Offenses

    — While each case should be considered individually, I believe that the aforesaid offenses would typically be excluded from a Mental Health Court.  Murder and Manslaughter would not be considered under any circumstances.  These exclusions are reasonable and are in line with the exclusions set forth in Montgomery Court’s Behavioral Health Court.

    (4)  Juvenile Component

    — I recognize that the development and implementation of a Mental Health Court in Northampton County will take time, expertise and planning by Court Administration, the Court of Common Pleas and mental health experts and other professionals.  Juvenile Mental Health Courts have developed more slowly than adult mental health courts.  In my opinion, at some point, a NCMHC needs to encompass juvenile matters related to mental illness and hopefully in the end will become a component of a Northampton County Mental Health Court.

    I believe that the establishment of Mental Health Courts is critical to reducing the number of individuals with mental illness in Pennsylvania state and county correctional institutions, and to provide a more appropriate treatment for this population in a community or psychiatric hospital setting.  Incarcerating individuals with mental illness often on misdemeanor offenses, places an unrealistic burden on our correction facilities with minimal hope of reducing recidivism.  It is expensive, ineffective and inhumane.  By diverting individuals with mental illness into Mental Health Courts, we are most likely able to change their behavior in becoming peaceful members of their communities.  Mental Health Courts offer an alternative to sending still more people with mental illness to jail.  The goal is to prevent these types of defendants from committing more crimes.  Across the country and across Pennsylvania where these courts have been operating, the studies and data report positive results.  I am confident that the team in place at the Northampton County Criminal Justice Advisory Board with our Court Administration, judges and professionals would make Northampton County a model of success.