Judge Richard A. Gray recently was honored for supervising the Mental Health Court program, which graduated three participants Monday.
"There's more than 500 judges in the state of Pennsylvania and many have no interest in working in special programs because they don't want to get too close to the clients. It's to Judge Gray's enormous credit to have served underserved people," President Judge Nancy L. Butts said before presenting Gray with a plaque.
Program graduates were honored with diplomas and a small gift.
"You look like a different guy than when you first came in. You have a calm in your eyes now. Keep moving in the right direction," Gray told one graduate.
Mental health court provides special support and supervision to individuals with non-violent convictions that have a mental health diagnosis. While following the conditions of probation may sound easy, it can be difficult for individuals with a mental illness, according to Gray.
"Most of these people, they're not 'bad' people. From a taxpayer perspective, prison is an expensive alternative for folks like this that don't really need to be incarcerated," Gray said.
Each participant is assigned a probation officer, mental health case worker and, if necessary, a drug and alcohol counselor. The program helps reduce recidivism, according to Gray.
"Some criminal charges are a result of mental illness. If we treat the mental illness, we can avoid criminal activity," mental health case worker Scott Diggs said.
The average client spends about two years in the program. They foster relationships with probation officers, case workers and therapists.
"Part of the reason why recidivism is low is because they know where to go to get help. They have contacts not only in the criminal justice system but also case workers. They have their cellphone numbers," Gray said.
Program participants regularly appear before Judge Gray, who asks for updates about their medications, living situation and personal lives.
"Did you ever find your lost dog?" Judge Gray asked one client.
Clients expressed gratitude for the judge's compassion and genuine concern.
"You're a nice judge," one client told Gray.
While the program provides an alternative to incarceration, there is no tolerance for non-compliance with the conditions of supervision. One mental health court client, who recently tested positive for cocaine, is now serving time behind bars.
"We can't let serious things like crack cocaine use go, so we have to sanction them and get them into an appropriate treatment program," Gray said.
Mental illness can drastically disrupt a person's life, but most are treatable, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Recovery depends on a number of factors, including interpersonal therapy and community support - things that mental health court seeks to provide.
"I see mental health as a real problem and challenge for our community. I hope the public supports these programs," Gray said.