Mentally ill experience a different day in court

Those in trouble with the law find sensitive ear in county system



Defendants have been known to wave and say "good morning" when Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Beth Lazzara takes the bench. She smiles and says "good morning" back.

When one defendant offers to perform a rap song he wrote, Judge Lazzara allows him to put on a courtroom performance. When another asks to go on vacation with the judge and her family, she laughs and says the car is full.

And when defendants have paid their debts to society -- and to themselves -- they receive a certificate of achievement, a slice of cake and a hug from the judge.

Bill Grieco's experience with Mental Health Court

Bill Grieco's experience with Mental Health Court put him back on the right track and saved him from a lengthy stay in jail. (Video by Andrew Rush; 9/23/2013)

"What you've done is amazing," Judge Lazzara told 29 "graduates" in June at the session at the Allegheny County Courthouse.

This is not a regular criminal court. This is the county's mental-health court, established in 2001 to get offenders into treatment when mental illness is believed to be the underlying cause of certain criminal acts. The goal is to divert offenders from jail, where their mental illnesses aren't likely to improve, and give them a chance to put their lives back on track.

Defendants regularly appear in court so that attorneys, probation officers and mental-health professionals can give progress updates to the judge, who also monitors cases by email.

"We have some very sick people in here," she said.

When defendants make progress, Judge Lazzara may release them from a halfway house and send them home. When they revert to their old ways, she may send them back to jail, as she did Rashad Moore in June for acting out at a group home.

"I'm trying to get my life together," Mr. Moore told the judge. She didn't buy it.

She is compassionate, but there are limits to her patience -- there must be, she said, because some people sit in jail waiting for beds in treatment programs to open. If one person repeatedly fails to live by the rules, she said, the bed must go to someone else.

"At some point, you do have to balance resources with the person's compliance," she said.

Defendants may spend months attending treatment programs and complying with other requirements. On graduation day, Judge Lazzara lets them know how far they've come. The graduates form a circle in the courtroom, and she says a few words about each before giving out certificates, hugs and cake.

"You're going to be hearing about Aaron Brown guitars," she said of a graduate planning to attend guitar-making school. She praised another for completing the program, saying there was a time when she feared he'd wash out and die.

Kelton Crankshaw, 26, of the North Side, said he headed down the wrong road at 17 after his father died.

"This court helped change my outlook on life," he said, urging his fellow graduates to strive for success and set a good example for the court. "We have to keep this room a success place."

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Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548. First Published September 24, 2013 4:15 AM


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