The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

October 8, 2013

Special court to address mental health | Defendants will be intensively monitored

JOHNSTOWN — No justice system works perfectly all of the time, but those involved with it in Cambria County keep looking for ways to improve.

After launching a highly successful veterans court, the county is now preparing to launch another court that will deal specifically with mental-health cases. Just like the veterans court, the new initiative is not viewed simply as a way to let criminals off the hook, but to look at individual cases and circumstances. The plan is to provide intensive monitoring of mental-health defendants before, during and after sentences are served.

“The goal would be to recognize the mental illness component of a defendant’s behavior,” said Judge Linda Fleming, who is taking the lead on the new program.

Fleming is far from the only one involved in the project, however. The office of the district attorney and the public defender also need to be on board, as well as some outside professionals. So far, it looks like the cooperation needed to pull off such a big project is in place.

That’s good news for the county, its residents and those on both sides of the criminal justice system.

While mental illness might not always be the driving force behind criminals’ actions, even in those suffering from mental problems, getting them proper treatment could go a long way toward reducing the rate of recidivism and help raise the level of public safety. As we’ve seen in the response to mass shootings in our country, there is a push to help find and treat mental illness before such tragedies occur. Getting someone the mental help that he or she needs on a first criminal offense could prevent further, possibly more devastating, criminal acts.

Cambria County Prison Warden John Prebish told reporter Kathy Mellott that he’s all for the program and hopes that the close monitoring that former inmates will get can make a big difference.

“I think it’s a great idea. We’re always looking for alternatives to addressing some of these underlying problems,” Prebish said. “I think any kind of tool you put in place helps.”

Of course, there are some issues that any new program will face. In this instance, it revolves around the manpower needed to oversee it. It’s the same issue that the veterans court, which is overseen by President Judge Timothy Creany, has had to overcome.

“As nice as veterans court has gone, I would hope the same with mental-health court,” Creany said. “But they put a strain on the system.”

We hope that, like the veterans court, the criminal justice professionals can find a way to make it work, for the good of the system, those it serves and the people of Cambria County.

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