Report highlights a punitive court helmed by a judge with no mental health credentials
For Immediate Release
December 6, 2023
Connease Warren, Abolitionist Law Center, 713-304-8990 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Allegheny County, PA— The Allegheny County Mental Health Court (MHC), established in 2001, purports to divert participants with documented diagnoses of mental illness out of jail and into community-based treatment facilities. But participation requires stipulations including a guilty plea that fails to spare them from many of the worst consequences of involvement in the criminal system, including arrest, a guaranteed criminal record and possible incarceration. “You Send Yourselves to Jail” Coercive Diversion in the Allegheny County Mental Health Court, a report released today from The Abolitionist Law Center, exposes another abusive, violent carceral structure, part and parcel of Allegheny County’s larger systems of criminalization.
The report provides a lens into a courtroom that borders on the absurd. MHC’s judge, Beth Lazzara, is a former personal injury lawyer with no publicly detailed credentials in psychiatry, psychology, behavioral health, therapy, or any other form of mental health treatment. The MHC courtroom is lined with Star Wars plushies. Judge Lazzara has introduced award schemes involving bracelets and Star Wars-themed certificates as carrots to the jail’s stick.
Written with data from Court Watch, a program staffed by volunteers who observe and evaluate court proceedings, the report makes the workings of courtrooms accessible to the public.
“I have been watching court for over two years, and have focused entirely on mental health court. What has been truly harrowing for me as a court watcher is also watching the same people get cycled through the same series of programs with escalating program intensity, placed farther and farther away from their communities,” said Caro Pirri, ALC Court Watch volunteer.
As a plea-dependent court, the MHC subjects people to most traditional carceral processes and leaves them with a permanent record. Mental health professionals rarely attend proceedings, and defense counsel for participants are present at less than half of hearings. In practice, the court revolves around the threat and reality of jail. Many participants are incarcerated intermittently throughout their time in the MHC.
“Allegheny County’s Mental Health Court is a coercive process that has nothing to do with providing mental healthcare and is instead another arm of a system of state violence that systematically targets people with disabilities,” said Bret Grote, Legal Director at the Abolitionist Law Center.
In fact, the MHC directly criminalizes the behavioral health problems of its participants. Participants are 1.5 times as likely as others to be criminally charged for “threats;” within facilities and hearings, they are regularly punished for drug relapse or aggression.
“As demonstrated in the report, both qualitative and quantitative data tells the story. The role of the court watcher is to document the palpable experience that cannot be reflected in numbers alone. Justice must be seen to be done and while we reach for transformation from this apartheid criminal legal system, we courtwatch to expose the ongoings of the court to reduce harm in the interim, until a pure justice that centers community accountability and healing is actualized,” said Autumn Redcross, founding Director of Abolitionist Law Center’s Court Watch Program.
Read the full Report here.
The Abolitionist Law Center is a public interest law firm and community organizing project inspired by the struggle of political and politicized prisoners and organized for the purpose of abolishing class and race-based mass incarceration in the United States. Abolitionist Law Center litigates on behalf of people whose human rights have been violated in prison and organizes to end state violence, empower impacted people, and protect individuals who encounter the criminal legal system while uplifting solutions rooted in healing, liberation, and self-determination. Follow Abolitionist Law Center on Facebook, @AbolitionistLC on Twitter, and @Abolitionistlc on Instagram.