Judge John Zotolla’s mental health court in Pittsburgh often feels more like a kindergarten award ceremony than part of the criminal justice system, says U.S. News & World Report. Even defendants who’ve slipped up on probation are unlikely to be thrown back in jail. Instead, most face a stern but kind warning, along with orders for more rigorous treatment or reporting schedules. The Allegheny County Mental Health Court, an alternative to traditional criminal court, it the sort of approach that has helped keep more mentally ill offenders out of jail. “Some people say, ‘Is warm and fuzzy appropriate for the criminal justice system?'” says Zotolla, a former prosecutor. “But it really works.”
Traditionally, courts have treated the mentally ill no different from any other defendant. The results have been devastating. More than twice as many people with mental illness live in prisons than in state mental hospitals. When they are confined to tiny cells, their conditions often worsen, increasing their propensity to act out. Spurred by growing prison populations and high levels of recidivism, mental health courts number about 175 nationwide. The premise is simple: Instead of going to jail or standard probation, defendants in mental health court are diverted to treatment and remain under regular supervision for a fixed length of time. After going through the Pittsburgh court, which started in 2001, only 10 percent of 223 graduates were rearrested, far below the 68 percent national average.