As debate rages over how to solve San Francisco’s seemingly intractable homeless problem, city leaders, researchers, and even some formerly homeless people say progress is being made every Thursday at the city’s gloomy Hall of Justice, says the San Francisco Chronicle. For a couple of hours each week, the courtroom fills with dozens of defendants with serious mental illnesses who have been charged with or convicted of crimes ranging from misdemeanor theft to felony assault and robbery. Almost all were homeless or on the brink of living on the streets at the time of their arrests, and many struggle with drug or alcohol abuse. Superior Court Judge Mary Morgan, who presides over the court, says it’s “the most hopeful thing happening in the criminal justice system.” Working with a host of city agencies, the court gives the defendants specially designed treatment plans that include case managers to help them get into psychiatric rehabilitation and supportive housing programs, obtain proper medications, and find assistance to overcome drug and alcohol abuse. If the defendants successfully complete the program, which usually takes a year or two, their criminal charges often are reduced or wiped from their record.
The Thursday sessions could be the first time in a long time anybody’s paid attention to them – other than spotting them on the streets and quickly scurrying away. Behavioral Health Court works, says a UC San Francisco study published in September in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The study found that participants in the program, marking its fifth anniversary this month, are far less likely to commit future crimes than mentally ill criminals processed through the traditional justice system. Data indicate that by 18 months after completion, participants, who at first are required to make weekly court appearances, are 39 percent less likely to be charged with a new offense than mentally ill people in the regular court system. The risk of being charged with a new violent crime was 54 percent lower. Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness wonders why these well-regarded services aren’t so readily available to mentally ill homeless people outside the courts.