The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

October 5, 2013

County planning to launch mental-health court

EBENSBURG — At any given time, as many as 25 percent of the inmates housed at the Cambria County Prison are on some type of psychotropic drugs, a problem the judges in this county hope to address.

Loosely patterned after the highly successful veterans court, initial steps are being taken under the direction of President Judge Timothy Creany to initiate a mental-health court.

With Judge Linda Fleming taking the lead, the court will attempt to increase awareness of mental-health problems in general and for specific defendants as they move through the system.

If all goes as planned, the new court will provide intensive monitoring of the 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,” Fleming said.

Mental-health court also will increase the level of public safety and should reduce recidivism, she said.

But as with the highly intensive veterans court, which provides bi-weekly or monthly court appearances and peer counseling, already taxing county probation, and the offices of the district attorney and public defender, some outside help is needed, Creany said.

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

Probation has been hit hard, with one officer dedicated to veterans court and two more pulled from the ranks to handle the Day Reporting Center. An additional probation officer is needed for this new venture, he said.

A grant application to the state is now in the works with the county seeking funds to pay for an additional probation officer, mental-health worker and a part time administrator.

The idea has been in the works for some time, with Fleming already taking over many of the mental-health cases in the court’s pipeline.

Fleming also has taken the lead with attorneys and other court staff being trained in mental-health issues and mental-health workers being trained in the court system.

The initial training sessions have brought a positive response from some in the district attorney and the public defender offices, Fleming said.

Assistant District Attorney Beth Bolton Penna was one who thinks all involved will benefit.

“It helped to open my eyes. It helped me to see what these people and their families are dealing with,” Bolton Penna said.

Not only should the mental-health court help the defendant and the prison, but those on the other side likely will benefit.

“As prosecutors it helps us deal not only with the defendants’ mental health issues, but it will help the victims,” she said. “It goes both ways and the more we know, the better it will be.”

Fleming and others already have experienced a mental-health court with a May trip to York County to observe its relatively new initiative in action.

Because of the privacy needed in mental-health issues, each defendant must agree to participate, meaning the case can be discussed by the professionals initially outside of their presences.

The defendant would then be fully involved, Fleming said.

Cambria County Warden John Prebish thinks the close monitoring that will come with the mental-health court will go a long way in keeping defendants from recommitting crimes and landing back behind bars.

“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.”

The prison and its mental-health counselor work closely with diagnosed inmates and also deal with individuals with undiagnosed problems who are having difficulty coping, Prebish said.

A specialized court to deal with mental-health issues does not mean the county’s judicial system will handle the defendants with kid gloves, Fleming said.

The protocols are just like veterans court.

“Just because a veteran commits a crime, they don’t get a free pass,” Fleming said

This new initiative is geared for those who commit less-serious crimes, court officials said, and it is not about going easy on the defendants.

“It’s not an automatic forgiveness of the crime, Bolton Penna said. “It’s going to help them get the kind of help they need as part of their treatment.”

Kathy Mellott covers the Cambria County courthouse for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/kathymellotttd.

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