Mentally ill behind bars: A judge’s unusually specific sentence offers promise
Many prisoners with mental health disorders have a difficult time improving their conditions in state prisons. But Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Alexander P. Bicket’s unusually specific sentencing of a defendant last week shows how that situation might change.
After Calvin McDonald was found guilty but mentally ill in the assault and kidnapping of his girlfriend, Judge Bicket sentenced him to 5 to 10 years in state prison.
But instead of allowing the Department of Corrections to determine his program of mental health treatment, the judge took the unusual step of ordering the state to provide McDonald with the regimen recommended by the defense’s expert witness: the psychotropic drugs already prescribed to him, plus individual and group counseling and other kinds of therapy. Just as important, the defense expert, forensic psychologist Shannon Edwards, requested that Judge Bicket reevaluate McDonald’s mental health after one year.
Allegheny County and other counties have mental health courts that deal largely with nonviolent offenders whose psychiatric problems are underlying factors in their criminal cases. The focus is on treatment as much as punishment, and the judges who preside over these special courts set treatment plans, determine the best housing situation for each defendant and regularly have the offenders return to court so their progress can be evaluated.