Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Diversion programs have been around almost as long as the justice system, and often have been born of necessity due to overburdened courts. But over the years, D.C.’s Mental Health Community Court has developed a more holistic outlook that does not emphasize preserving court resources or keeping people out of jails or prisons so much as helping people solve their issues and illnesses.

That was the message that resonated at the court’s 10th anniversary celebration in D.C. Superior Court on Friday, as graduates of its diversion program, advocates, judges, prosecutors, defendants, and top government officials came together to renew their commitment and acknowledge each other’s efforts.

“This began with the efforts of motivated [judges] who kept seeing a revolving door of defendants who suffered from conditions that made it likely for them to offend again,” said Chief Judge Robert Morin, who praises the D.C. police and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for being proactive in dealing with people with behavioral health issues. “Our focus is not on docket management, but helping people redirect their lives.”

Diversion is implemented both formally and informally. Most commonly, it involves a program that a defendant enters as a condition of avoiding a jail sentence and having their case closed. Domestic violence offenders may be sent to an anger management program. Substance abusers may go to drug rehab. People with behavioral issues may enter a mental health program.

D.C.’s mental health community court is the hub of a system of criminal justice and community partners and provides them with resources to resolve crime while holding defendants accountable and addressing the causes of their criminal behavior.

To date, the court has provided services to more than 3,500 defendants facing misdemeanor charges and has certified 452 defendants facing felony charges to the program, according to Cleonia Terry, a licensed independent clinical social worker and the court coordinator. After being introduced by veteran NBC4 news anchor and Mistress of Ceremonies Doreen Gentzler last Friday, Terry stood beneath a large arch consisting of red, gold and black balloons and blinked back tears as she played an audiotape of testimonials of participants in the program.

“I’ve never heard anyone say they’ve served that many people, and that’s probably why we’ll never stop asking for just one full time mental health assistant,” Terry said, adding that D.C.’s court is the only one in the country to have a full service mental health clinic.

“Thank you Cleonia, and way to advocate for your program,” cracked Gentzler, to laughter from the attendees and honorees. “Hey, I’m a social worker!” replied Terry.

The program started in 2007 as a one-year pilot collaboration between D.C. Superior Court, the D.C. Pretrial Service Agency, the United States Attorney’s Office, the Criminal Justice Act Bar, the Public Defender Service, and the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health. It expanded in 2010 to include non-violent felony charges, and just recently the Superior Court and the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency developed a similar program for felony probationers at risk of committing future violations related to their mental health issues.

As one of the largest mental health courts in the country, the program benefits from having a dedicated judge and court staff who collaborate with community mental health programs and the supervisory agencies that oversee pre-trial services and offender supervision, Judge Morin said. “One value of D.C. is we have a one-courthouse system, so if we want to solve a problem, we can get judges, lawyers and stakeholders together in one place,” he said.

There was an air of camaraderie as agency leaders and stakeholders took turns acknowledging the efforts of their partners and greeting old friends and colleagues. U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Jessie Liu delivered remarks—though brief, as she is just five days into her term—as did Judge Heidi Pasichow, who presides over the court. Karen Minor, a defense attorney, said that the court allows her to hear candidly—and sometimes loudly—what works for her individual clients, and what doesn’t. “The sense of accomplishment they feel is incredible,” she said of clients who are given goals to reach and steps to take. “For some it’s the first time in their lives they’ve been heard so clearly. No one ever listens to our clients the way they are listened to in mental health court.”

Perhaps the most moving remarks came from Susan Carroll, who suffers from schizophrenia and was without a home for 28 years. Having come through the court’s program, she soon will be moving into her own apartment for the first time in almost three decades. “They helped me believe I belong in society with everyone else,” Carroll said, before quoting Emily Dickinson and Oscar Wilde, fellow sufferers of mental illness whose company she is proud to be in.

Overcoming the stigma of mental illness has been a challenge not just for people like Carroll, according to Gentzler, who has championed news coverage of the topic. “It’s hard to cover mental illness for TV news,” Gentzler said. “I understand why people hesitate to tell their stories. I understand why it’s hard to pitch stories to station managers about access to treatment and services. For years they’d roll their eyes.” In 2014, she said, the station approved a one-month project even though the manager wasn’t sure how it would do in the ratings. “It was quite surprising that people in advertising and sales and sports came up and said, ‘We need to be doing more of this,’” Gentzler said. “The overriding goal is to raise awareness of the challenges and do something about the stigma even though it touches people’s lives in all ways.”