The “Broken” Justice System for the Mentally Ill


In mid-September, three California corrections officers were charged with beating a mentally ill inmate to death.

Judge Stephen Manley, who runs Santa Clara County’s Mental Health Treatment Court and is on a commission investigating the case, said in an interview with KQED's Scott Shafer that the lack of training for first responders in how to deal with mentally troubled offenders is “one of the greatest problems” facing the U.S. justice system.

Such specialized training for corrections officers, judges and court officials is critical to helping them understand the challenges of the mentally ill, he said.

The training is even more critical than ever because courts and jails now deal with large numbers of mentally ill. In Santa Clara County alone, some 48 percent if the prisoners in the county jail have been diagnosed with some kind of mental illness.

“We have a broken system,” said the judge. “The courthouse is like a revolving door for mentally ill people.”

In his court, Judge Manley presides over a different approach: mentally ill offenders have their cases reviewed in a non-adversarial environment, with substance abuse counselors and doctors present.

Instead of incarceration, the offenders are given a treatment schedule in the community where they live, in the hope of preventing their re-arrest.

Asked whether his court had ever made a “mistake”' in which a released offender from his court went on to commit a violent offense, Judge Manley –who has presided over the court for about 20 years—said it had never happened.

“Mentally ill people will commit new offenses, but the idea that every mentally ill individual is violent is just not true,” he said. “It's a stigma: very few go on to commit violent offenses.

To see the entire interview, please click HERE.

Scott Shafer, a reporter for KQED/public television in San Francisco, is a 2014-2015 John Jay/Langeloth Justice and Health Reporting Fellow. He welcomes your comments.

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