Mental Health Court offers new beginning

    Philadelphia’s mental health court is almost a year old. This first year is a trial run to see whether the court can help keep non-violent repeat offenders with severe mental illnesses out of prisons.

    Philadelphia’s mental health court is almost a year old. This first year is a trial run to see whether the court can help keep non-violent repeat offenders with severe mental illnesses out of prisons. Maiken Scott takes a look at the court’s track record so far.


    Roland Reeves has seen plenty of court rooms in his 45 years. He’s been in jail about 14 times, always for shoplifting. And he says judges typically tell him the same thing:

    Reeves: I don’t want to see your face again.

    But that warning didn’t deter Reeves, who suffers from mental illness

    Reeves: I knew that I was diagnosed years ago with psychosis, severe depression, I hear voices at times, and I would go out to steal every day, because I needed drug money.

    So each time Reeves got out of jail, the cycle would start over again

    Reeves: I would get out and I had nothing to turn to, I had no one, I felt that there was no one who was going to help me.

    Drexel University psychologist Kirk Heilbrun says between 12 and 15 percent of the people in prison have a mental illness. That illness is often what lands them in jail:

    Heilbrun: And they get arrested for things that basically involve being actively psychotic in public, disturbing the peace, interacting in a nuisance way with officers, and things like that.

    After his last arrest, things changed for Roland Reeves. A treatment team met with him while he was in jail and told him he could enroll in Philadelphia’s mental health court program. He agreed, was paroled, and started court-mandated treatments.

    Sheila Woods-Skipper is the supervising judge for the mental health court. She says the hope is that people like Reeves will become more stable and independent:

    Woods-Skipper: That we can stop the revolving door of them going in and out of prison, because they are committing crimes because of their mental health issues so that if we can give them the support and resources that they need to be successful, that we give them hope that they can be productive citizens.

    Lenzie Faison of Philadelphia’s Community Treatment Teams helps provide those supports for paroled mentally ill offenders. He says his clients need services like housing, psychiatric treatment, and help finding jobs:

    Faison: We’re dealing with a population who are historically homeless, who have used the prison system on some level as a means of survival, and they are not able to navigate the system we call life, and so what we do is we provide that level of stability.

    Going to group and individual treatment sessions is part of participants’ parole requirements, as are frequent meetings with the judge to check on progress. Faison says the court understands the complexities of mental illness. So parolees who have setbacks and get into trouble are not automatically sent back to jail.

    Faison: We can sit with the judge, we can sit with the probation department, and say okay, he had a hiccup, okay, this was the hiccup, this is what we’ll do to fix it.

    So far, 22 people have been enrolled in treatment through the mental health court, and more are added every month. Only one person had to be kicked out of the program.

    Judge Woods-Skipper says each day a person is not in prison saves the city about $100 – but there are bigger ramifications to consider:

    Woods-Skipper: Ultimately, the city as a whole saves, because these individuals are getting jobs, they are committed to their rehabilitation.

    Mental Health Courts are modeled after drug courts which work with addicts and have shown strong success rates at preventing recidivism.

    Roland Reeves says since he has been in treatment, he has been taking his medications, found a job, and obtained his driver’s license.

    More than that – he has gotten recognition in a setting where he was once told never to show his face again:

    Reeves: I remember like sitting next to the judge and being applauded for the work that I’m doing in the community

    The Philadelphia court is operating on a planning grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, which runs out in June. The future of the court will be decided in June when new grant money is allocated by the same source.

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