Re-envisioning Justice in the South
Mental health courts are reducing stigma and keeping people who need help from getting caught up in the system.
Judge Stephen Wallace
I had practiced law in Birmingham, Alabama, for almost ten years when I became a judge. I felt like I could be, firstly, a good judge, a fair judge, and a merciful judge. I felt like I could ensure that people were treated with decency and respect. We had a therapeutic court for many years, but we didn’t have any services beyond that. I felt there was a need for doing more — moving beyond just taking guilty pleas and trying cases. I wanted to get people connected to treatment and services.
The drug court was in place already. We also had one of the oldest continuously operating pretrial services programs in the country. We had a lot of the building blocks of a good system, and I felt like we were doing some things well. Recently we’ve even gained a theft court and expanded some other community corrections programs. But we didn’t have a mental health court or mental health diversion program until recently.
The first thing we do with diversion and mental health court early on when folks are being booked is to identify anyone with a mental illness. We want to identify and assess any folks who might need medication and therapy and get them those services immediately. The next step is to do our best to see if they can be released on an outpatient basis. You want to make sure they’re not just being warehoused in jail. For a lot of people we run across, particularly the indigent population, these folks have never had access to any treatment. If they are released, there needs to be treatment available and follow-up to make sure they’re not just cycling back and forth through the justice system.
One young lady had committed a serious robbery, but everybody involved in the robbery knew something wasn’t right. She didn’t make any effort to conceal her weapon or run away. Under the past system, I don’t know if she’d have qualified as criminally insane — she probably would have been sent to prison for a significant amount of time. But, we got her some treatment and services. I opened the eyes of the prosecutors to see that she wasn’t public enemy #1. To this day she’s doing well and hasn’t re-offended. I think she’s a good example of someone who could have gone to prison for mental health reasons but was diverted out, and we’re all the better for it.
Another young man who came through my court had a confrontation with his family. He was more willing to confess that he had an alcohol problem than a mental health issue, which sort of shows you the kind of stigma that comes with mental health diagnoses. For the first time in his life, he was able to access treatment. He’s now on a great path and is doing well.
I think of the people we diverted away from prison as successes. And I think of those who maybe weren’t getting treatment because they held a stigma around mental health, but we were able to help them work through that and get treatment for the first time. This is the legacy I hope to leave as a judge.
Judge Stephen Wallace of Birmingham, Alabama, was elected to the Jefferson County Circuit Court bench in 2010 and has held the position since. He is a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of judges, police, and other criminal justice professionals who support evidence-based policies that reduce incarceration and make communities safer.