Luzerne County mental health court gives those struggling with illnesses a chance.

Last updated: March 31. 2013 11:27PM - 4389 Views
By - jandes@timesleader.com - (570) 991-6388

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The local man heard nonexistent voices and was consumed by beliefs that had no basis in reality when he committed a disorderly conduct offense that landed him in Luzerne County’s court system.

Instead of sticking him in jail or on probation, a county mental health court team walked him through a tailored treatment program that helped him silence the hallucinations and delusions of his diagnosed schizophrenia and severe paranoia.

Today, two years later, he holds down a full-time job and has reunited with his son, providing the boy with emotional and financial support.

“You wouldn’t even recognize him. He’s a productive citizen and family man because he now has the tools he didn’t have before,” said mental health court overseer Dr. William Anzalone, who also has a private forensic psychology practice in Pittston.

The program, in its fourth year, saves tax dollars that would be spent on prison lodging — $94 per inmate a day — while tackling mental health illnesses and increasing public safety, Anzalone said.

“Participants tend to be individuals who are not psychologically stable and are in and out of jail and causing disturbances because they never had their psychological needs addressed,” Anzalone said.

Seventeen county residents have completed the court program to date, and five more are scheduled to graduate later this month.

Most offenders who enter the program face non-violent misdemeanor or felony charges, though some violent charges may be accepted on a case-by-case basis, Anzalone said. Those who commit homicide and sexually related offenses are not eligible, he said.

The team reviews offenders’ criminal history and psychological assessments before voting whether to accept them in the program. The illnesses of past participants have included major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress, generalized anxiety disorder and delusional disorder. Their crimes range from theft and trespassing to terroristic threats and arson.

Two years to graduate

Offenders must choose to sign up for the program, which requires weekly status appearances before a judge and the rest of the team for the first six months. The number of check-ins decreases after that if clients are completing prescribed treatment plans, and it typically takes about two years to reach graduation and leave the program.

“We’ve had people who didn’t want to participate because they viewed it as too difficult. They decided it was easier to sit in jail 30 to 60 days than go through two years of treatment,” Anzalone said. “Participants have to want to get better.”

The county prison doesn’t have the resources to provide the program’s in-depth mental health treatment and individualized attention, he said. The prison focuses more on maintenance of mental illnesses and cannot force inmates to take medication, he said.

About 24 percent of county prison inmates typically have major mental illnesses, he said. Prison officials created a special area for the most seriously mentally ill inmates for safety reasons, he said.

Anzalone believes more mentally ill people are landing in jails because the number of state psychiatric hospitals has decreased from five in 2006 to three today. The closest is in Norristown, and there’s a six-month waiting list, he said.

“Our local jails are becoming mental hospitals,” Anzalone said.

The county Mental Health and Developmental Services department, which has funded mental health court costs not covered by grants or medical assistance, developed a program with Volunteers of America to obtain housing for program participants.

Meeting basic needs

Many participants couldn’t afford apartments or convince landlords to approve them because of their past criminal histories, he said.

Through the program, Volunteers of America accepts initial leases and monitors clients until landlords are comfortable dealing directly with the offenders. The tenants pay 30 percent of their income toward rent during the first year.

“If participants don’t have food and shelter, we can’t work with them on their mental health needs,” he said.

A veteran component was added to the court program thanks to the assistance of a state veteran forensic caseworker who has joined the team, Anzalone said.

Seven veterans have enrolled in the program, including one past and one upcoming graduate.

Only one of the 17 program graduates has been rearrested and incarcerated, he said. Most continue to participate in their prescribed treatment after they leave, he said.

“Typically people in the program have a long history of mental health illness. They can be very functional, but their treatment may be a lifelong commitment, almost like maintaining diabetes,” he said.

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