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Mental Health Court in Pennsylvania:
An Approach to Therapeutic Jurisprudence and Restorative Justice

Beginning around the turn of the century, the Pennsylvania criminal justice system began to conceptualize a system that would combine legal and therapeutic strategies and practices to address the problems with ever-increasing recidivism in the Commonwealth. Many of the individual counties across the state desired to address the social, psychological/medical, and cultural needs of various populations using a more efficacious approach to the problem of recidivism, based on philosophies of therapeutic jurisprudence and critical theories of justice.

In 2001, Allegheny County developed a program that involved the efforts of several critical agencies, including the County Department of Human Services, and the Offices of the Court of Common Pleas, district attorney, public defender, and Adult Probation. With a view towards establishing a program designed to divert individuals, with serious histories of diagnosed mental illness, with non-violent criminal charges, from traditional punitive sentences, and refer them, instead, to community-based services and to provide them with proper treatment, housing and supervision. Many other counties soon followed Allegheny County’s lead and began to investigate and implement alternative diversionary programs related to mental health.

In general, participants of such programs may be referred to Mental Health Court by police officers, Magisterial District Judges, attorneys, probation officers, case managers, judges, family members, and other agencies or individuals. While eligibility requirements vary from county to county, generally the process begins with an application to the County behavioral or mental health services office, who will determine if the offender is eligible and appropriate for case management services under their guidelines. Upon approval from the mental health agency, the application is forwarded to the District Attorney’s Office, who will evaluate whether the case is appropriate for the program, based on the offender’s criminal history, the underlying circumstances surrounding the crime, and the opinions or positions of the crime victim and the officer involved in the prosecution. The county mental health agency also evaluates the suitability of each potential participant for the program.

In general, only individuals with documented mental disorders or disabilities, who are charged with a misdemeanor or a non-violent felony are eligible for these programs. Certain categories of offenses are generally not considered eligible for Mental Health Court programs, such as, for example, assault while a prisoner, drug-trafficking, DUI, homicide, probation violations, sexual offenses, aggravated assault, arson, and burglary.

Put simply, by way of these programs, a person may be able to avoid strict punitive measures, such as incarceration, and, instead, be placed in mental health services and treatment to address their targeted needs. Similarly, an individual placed on probation from a Mental Health Court disposition will be supervised by a probation officer, equipped to provide special services, and will receive support from an MHC probation liaison.

Mental Health Court participants are expected to honor a relatively lengthy commitment to the program, which can range from one to 1 ½ years, which consists of several phases. This intensive program requires frequent contact with the participant’s probation officer and case manager and weekly court appearances. Offenders can continue through the program, and experience less frequent monitoring and strict requirements, as long as they continue to meet the program and treatment requirements.

Infractions can result from violation of program rules. If a participant violates the Mental Health Court program conditions or requirements, they may be sanctioned. For instance, a missed appointment, failed drug test, or new arrest/ charges, or dishonesty can result in a sanction, such as, for instance, assignment to write essays, loss of privileges, community service, additional fines, curfew restrictions, incarceration, and termination from the Mental Health Court program.

If you are facing a criminal charge, you should speak with a qualified criminal defense attorney to determine the potential consequences regarding your pending criminal charge. When you meet with an experienced criminal defense attorney, you should discuss your mental health issues. There may be options for you to explore regarding the Mental Health Court program. Contact the criminal defense lawyers at Tanner Law Offices. Our team of skilled professionals is prepared to defend you through this challenging time and ensure your rights are fully protected. Please contact our office at (717) 731-8114 to schedule a consultation to discuss your case.