Two padlocks hanging from chains serve as a constant weight around Robert McWhite's neck.
"It's a clear reminder of where I don't want to be," Mr. McWhite said.
Mr. McWhite, 37, has spent the better part of the past 18 years locked up by either the justice system, drug addiction, life on the streets, or mental illness in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
But Allegheny County's mental health court has gotten Mr. McWhite cleaned up and on a better path, he said.
His illness was triggered several years ago when a man thought Mr. McWhite was trying to rob him during a drug deal, and held a gun to Mr. McWhite's forehead for two minutes before deciding to shoot him in the leg.
Mr. McWhite started having nightmares and shunned dark places. He couldn't trust anyone around him and was constantly on edge.
He calls it "the mental thing that took over me." He self-medicated with heroin, crack, marijuana, "anything that would alter my mind."
The last time he was arrested was July 2006, for drug possession and retail theft. After years on what he terms "the jail installment plan," he pushed for something different: mental health court. The district attorney initially turned him down because of the length and severity of his rap sheet, which included gun charges.
But Public Defender Chuck van Keuren advocated for him, and in April Mr. McWhite was assigned to mental health court, a specialized court for Allegheny County offenders with a diagnosed mental illness. Judge John A. Zottola sentenced him to three months of house arrest and a year of probation.
Now Mr. McWhite's past life exists only on stage. He is the star of "Death of a Baller," a drama about the perils of street life put on in local churches and community centers by Greater Love Outreach. He is in therapy for PTSD and goes to meetings at Tadiso, a methadone clinic.
He lives in an efficiency on the North Side, away from the Hill District streets where he dealt and used drugs.
His probation -- as is the case for all mental health court defendants -- includes a detailed service plan, with strict guidelines for treatment, medication and therapy, guided by staff from Justice-Related Services, a division of the county's Department of Human Services.
Defendants are assigned a support specialist for the first 60 to 90 days of their probation. The specialists help clients find housing and show them where they need to report for medical treatment, therapies and to check in with their probation officer, often providing transportation. They also help line up appropriate government benefits.
Once the client is settled in the community, a probation liaison takes over, helping the client stick to the plan.
"We need a backbone. We need a stepping stone. That's what mental health court gives us," Mr. McWhite said.
"The state becomes your friend. You're so rebellious against the state, then the state does something for you."
It's not the state, though, but Allegheny County that has created one of the nation's most progressive programs for dealing with the mentally ill in the justice system.
The county's mental health court, one of a select few in the country when its first gavel struck in 2001, was the beginning.
All defendants who volunteer to have their cases moved to the court have a diagnosed mental disorder, most often bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Those charged with more severe violent crime, DUIs and drug-dealing are not eligible.
Judge Zottola's chambers are a packed house before regular Thursday morning court sessions. Representatives from Justice-Related Services, the district attorney's office, the public defender's office and the judge discuss each case that is coming up for a plea or a review, and also debate which cases should be admitted into the court.
The collaboration in these moments is crucial to the process.
"It's more of a horizontal approach to resolving the problems," Judge Zottola said. "We usually reach a consensus. We're all part of a team, not opposite sides."
That teamwork is evident in the relaxed courtroom in which Judge Zottola hears recommendations from Assistant District Attorney Heather Kelly and Mr. van Keuren, in addition to the Justice-Related Services personnel assigned to the case.
Defendants are given a chance to speak, too. It can be heart-wrenching -- a man pleading for a chance to see his son on his birthday, for example -- or hilarious -- a woman promising Judge Zottola she will no longer hit her husband with a shoe.
It's probably the only courtroom in the building that not only tolerates but encourages rounds of applause. Clients who finish their probation "graduate" from mental health court, and earn a certificate, a $25 gift card to Giant Eagle and cheers from their peers in their final review hearing.
Mr. McWhite said he feels almost impossibly at ease in the courtroom.
"Now I find myself shaking hands and giving hugs and being assertive with these people who I thought were against me," he said.
But defendants are hardly coddled. They can be ordered to attend inpatient drug rehab, be committed to a mental health facility or serve a jail sentence. Most often, they are released on probation, but if they don't follow the service plan, they go to jail.
Amy Kroll's first job out of college was as a guard at Camp Hill State Prison, outside Harrisburg. One day she found a prisoner, on the day he was to be freed, refusing to leave his cell.
The fear in his eyes stays with her to this day.
"At 23 I promised myself I would make a difference," Mrs. Kroll, now 49, said. "And this is my chance."
Mrs. Kroll, director of Justice-Related Services, was the driving force behind the mental health court.
Many of the services the county provides were already in place, but before the court was created Mrs. Kroll and her staff had to run around to all the different judges and district attorneys, presenting service plans and educating them about mental illness. The result, Mrs. Kroll said, was more jail time than treatment.
But Mrs. Kroll finally secured private grants for a full mental health court staff in 2001 -- a judge, public defender and district attorney who all have the expertise and understanding to deal with mental health issues.
Then in 2006, the county became one of the first jurisdictions in the country to fully adopt the Sequential Intercept Model, which calls for treatment at every stage: pre-arrest, post-arrest, specialty courts, re-entry from confinement and community support.
"Allegheny County certainly has a national reputation in understanding appropriate mental health services," said Bill Emmet, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Mental Health Reform.
Now there are about 175 mental health courts across the country, a sign, Mr. Emmet said, that more people are looking at creative ways to tackle the problem.
Last month, the Department of Human Services hosted a national conference on the Sequential Intercept Model that drew more than 460 judges, attorneys, mental health workers and law enforcement officers from around the country. And many more are interested.
"We've been blown away with requests and calls," Mrs. Kroll said. "This model is so workable for anything from a very rural area to very urban area. It's a way how to attack this major, major problem in criminal justice."
On top of that, it's cost-effective. A study by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit policy research institution, concluded that the cost of the county's treatment programs is outweighed by the money saved by not incarcerating mental health offenders. The county saved more than $9,500 per mental health client in a two-year span.
And the sample size doesn't take into account the money saved from the program's 12 percent recidivism rate. Contrast that with a Department of Justice study released in 2002 that said 46.9 percent of released prisoners nationally were convicted of a crime again within three years.
Allegheny County's program has helped combat the fear and uncertainty Mrs. Kroll saw at Camp Hill. When mentally ill prisoners are released from jail the county pays their first two months of rent and gives them $200 for new clothes at a discount retailer.
"A lot of it is just trying to give these guys a foot up," Mrs. Kroll said. "When they accumulate stuff and become a part of the community, they're less likely to go back to jail."
Mr. McWhite is proud of the stuff in his modest apartment, especially the two fish tanks and a terrarium with two small turtles.
He leads a solitary life now. Besides his meetings and therapy, he likes to go shoot hoops by himself and spend time at the library. Mr. McWhite receives Supplemental Security Income.
He most enjoys acting in "Death of a Baller," and sees himself getting into community activism, advising young people to avoid his path. He's also writing a book about his life.
But Mr. McWhite laments the time his criminal past has taken away. He has five daughters whom he rarely sees. They don't trust him, and he doesn't blame them.
"I'm fresh in this recovery and change, the metamorphosis, the caterpillar-to-butterfly change," Mr. McWhite said.
"But they don't necessarily know quite yet.
"My situation wasn't that I could just ski down three rivers. No, I had to climb some mountains."
Daniel Malloy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1731. First Published December 31, 2007 5:00 AM