For three years, Philadelphia’s Mental Health Court has identified lower-level felons who suffer from mental illness and worked to help them become more productive members of society.
Before the court’s creation, the mentally ill would stay in jail longer and have less support when re-entering society.
Levaughn Parker is blunt about how it’s changed his life.
“If I hadn’t come to Mental Health Court, I’d still be in jail,” said Parker. “Or dead on the street, or strung out on drugs.”
Parker’s past is not pretty. Burglary, robbery, aggravated assault — stints in prison off and on for 22 years.
Parker spoke at the first judicial district court at a gathering to celebrate what he — and 14 of his peers — have achieved. For some, the achievements are basic — the ability to stay on medication regularly or the ability to connect with family. One man celebrated his ability to get an official state ID.
Parker was celebrating the court’s highest goal. After two years on probation, his case manager says he’s ready to forgo court supervision. Parker doesn’t plan to walk away though. He plans to mentor those just coming into the court.
Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper has overseen the mental health court since its inception. She says it’s succeeded because of the passionate collaboration of Philly’s legal system.
“They see that they have a team of people that care,” said Woods-Skipper. “You can’t go into any other courtroom where you actually have the district attorney advocating for an individual, agreeing to things other than incarceration.”
David Ayers is one of those district attorneys.
“For some of these people, they’re on the underside of society their whole life,” said Ayers. “And you see them getting acknowledged for the things that they’re doing, they may be little things to the rest of us, but for them they’re gigantic”
The court was funded in through its first two years through state grants totaling around $260,000. The state funds have dried up, but the court continues as a labor of love for those with other obligations.
Officials estimate that 16 percent of the inmates in the Philadelphia prison system suffer mental illness.
They estimate the court has reduced the jail time for mentally ill offenders by about 28,000 days, saving the prison system about $3 million. Woods-Skipper hopes that some of that money will be redirected back into the court system.
For Levaughn Parker, it’s about a whole lot more than money.
“It’s like you’ve been drawn away from your future goals as a child that you had for yourself,” he said. “Going through the mental health court, it gives you a chance to have these dreams come back.”
One of Parker’s goals right now is to enroll in a creative writing course at community college.