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Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli seeks creation of mental health court

By Meghan Packer, Reporter, MPacker@wfmz.com
Published On: Feb 10 2014 04:04:59 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 10 2014 04:52:48 PM CST

Northampton County's district attorney said Monday it's time to talk about something that's lacking in the county court system.

EASTON, Pa. -

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli announced his support of the creation of a mental health court in the county. He made the announcement during a news conference Monday.

Morganelli said there are currently 17 mental health courts in Pennsylvania and there have been positive results from this state and across the country.

"Mental health courts offer an alternative to sending still more people with mental illness to jail," said Morganelli. "Incarcerating individuals with mental illness often on misdemeanor offenses places an unrealistic burden on our facilities, with minimal hope of reducing recidivism. It is expensive, ineffective and inhumane."

"We have been missing some folks, we have been missing some folks with serious and persistent mental illness that have been discharged that have come out and re-offended," said Wendy Heatley, Northampton County deputy mental health administrator.

"Having the formal process will allow us, hopefully, to catch those folks so that we can provide them with the needed treatment, keep them safe in the community," she added.

Morganelli said the goal is to prevent people with mental illness from committing more crimes. While it would be up to other people, including court administrators, judges, mental health professionals and others, to discuss details and eventually implement the program, Morganelli outlined some of the components he would like to see.

He said he wants to see a component of the court address veterans with mental illness that causes them to end up in the criminal justice system.

"Over the years I've had a number of cases where we've had veterans who are suffering from various post traumatic disorders that get involved in minor matters, public drunkenness, some theft or trespass," said Morganelli.

While Morganelli said he understands there is often an overlap between substance abuse and mental illness, he pointed out he does not want the mental health court to turn into a drug court.

"Important differences exist in the principles and operation of drug courts and mental health courts. Mental health courts are not merely drug courts for people with mental illness," said Morganelli. "I really want to focus on the people who have mental illness, which is not something they can control at all and it's not a criminal act to have mental illness. Drug use is a crime."

Morganelli said murder and manslaughter offenses would not be considered at all. Other offenses would typically be excluded from the mental health court, including felony sex and drug offenses and felony crimes of violence. Morganelli also said he hopes juvenile matters would eventually be a component of the court.

"We have to take into consideration what kind of costs would be involved, whether we can tap into existing resources," he said during the news conference.

There is no time table at this point, he added.

"I think today hopefully is a beginning to allow these professionals to work on this plan with the support of the district attorney, as I've announced today, and let's see how it goes over the next few months," Morganelli explained.