A second chance that counts

December 09, 2006|By Ann LoLordo

You've seen them around Baltimore, talking to themselves on the street, weaving in a drunken haze, flailing at an invisible enemy. They may be homeless and living in a shelter of found objects near a downtown church. They may be working at a dry cleaner, but off their medication because it made them drowsy. They may be selling their bodies for drugs and have neither the will nor the means to face their demons.

When they're acting out, they have a way of running afoul of the law. Loitering, disorderly conduct, prostitution, lewd behavior and drug possession are among their common crimes. They cycle in and out of the courts, and can disappear into jail for months at a time. You don't hear much about them until their demons overtake them and they threaten a police officer with a knife, beat and stab their mother, kill their therapist or wind up dead. Then, the public debate begins again on what should be done.

Their schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or depression are much to blame, their addictions complicit in their downward spiral. The more times they cycle through the system, the more hopeless they seem. But they're not all lost or lost causes.

Consider the seriously mentally ill who are arrested for non-violent offenses and appear before a group of judges at the John R. Hargrove Sr. Courthouse in south Baltimore. They have a real chance at saving themselves through a district court program that diverts them from jail, gets them help and treatment through supervised probation.

District Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey is presiding on the day that Madeline Leslie and six other defendants are graduating, a year or more after they first came under the mental health court's supervision.

An addict who sold drugs and her body to support her habit, Ms. Leslie has been drug free for eight months. She lives in a recovery house and has reconnected with the two daughters she lost to foster care.

"I look forward to waking up in the morning. I take a bath every day. I comb my hair every day," says Ms. Leslie, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. "I put on deodorant every day. I don't have teeth to brush - yet."

This lucid assessment shows how far she has come; she was a woman with a 17-year addiction to crack cocaine who would spend days or months in jail on a criminal charge, return to the street and pick up where she left off.

On this recent Thursday, Ms. Leslie is an example of how a voluntary jail diversion program with state workers committed to its goals can help restore these defendants to a healthy life and keep them from reoffending. It is a joint effort of the district court, prosecutors, public defenders, mental health professionals, and pretrial release and probation agents that has overseen 910 defendants in three years.

Judge Cooksey and Sue Diehl of the Baltimore Mental Health Systems got this program off the ground, but the support staff keeps it running. Some probation agents assigned here take their work home with them - the better to help their clients who are readjusting to the real world.

The court operates two half-days a week, and it's not enough. Another half-day (and the funding to cover the additional therapists and social workers needed to assess and evaluate potential clients) would help meet the need - state officials say 15 percent of men at the city detention center and 43 percent of women inmates need mental health services. A new data system would enable the court to track and assess outcomes. Finding suitable housing for these defendants is a constant struggle; more public housing certificates should be set aside for them.

Mentally ill defendants charged with non-violent crimes can be rerouted from the system. They can mind their demons and treat their illnesses. They may falter more than once. But they can succeed, in part because Judge Cooksey and her colleagues are able to see beyond their disheveled appearance, their blank stares and angry expressions. They don't write them off.

As a recent graduate of the court, Dennis Williams, explained: "I wouldn't have been able to get my mind back together without all of you."

If only more mentally ill offenders had the chance to say the same.

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