Strung out on methamphetamine, Kevin Wellington weighed 98 pounds one year ago. He'd been to jail four times and wasn't taking medication for his bipolar disorder and depression. Wellington acted out by breaking things and crashing his car.
But Wednesday, Wellington beamed as Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Donald Shaver indulged his request for a handshake, then a hug. Wellington pulled out his cell phone to photograph a bailiff writing his name on the court's "honor roll."
"I've been waiting for that, no joke," Wellington said.
Wednesday mornings in Department 10 are a far cry from the typical criminal courtroom scene. There's laughter and applause, and compliments are doled out to defendants who've stayed off drugs or completed tasks such as getting an identification card.
It's called Mental Health Treatment Court, a 3-year-old program aimed at keeping mentally ill offenders out of jail and under supervised treatment. The court was singled out statewide by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation this year for its success.
"It's the most rewarding program I've ever had as a judge," said Shaver, who's presided over family law disputes and death penalty cases alike. "Otherwise, you can spend your whole career seeing people at their worst."
In Stanislaus County, about 19 percent of the 900 jail inmates suffer from mental illnesses.
But despite the need, budget troubles and dried-up grant funding have forced cuts. The court stopped taking new offenders and cut its enrollment by half.
"This year has been difficult for all of us," said program coordinator Michael Wilson. "But everyone's committed to the process."
Spurred by crowded jails and high recidivism rates, the number of mental health courts has grown to about 280 nationwide.
The trend toward so-called problem-solving courts began in the 1980s with drug courts. The concept expanded as a way to save money and reduce the number of mentally ill people who repeatedly enter the criminal justice system.
"They were cycling in and out of jail," Shaver said. "We were seeing the same people over and over again."
Studies show defendants who complete mental health court programs are far less likely to be arrested again.
"They work. That's the bottom line," said Lisa Callahan, who is conducting the first nationwide study of mental health courts with New York-based Policy Research Associates.
"It's enormously expensive to keep people in jail, but it's not that expensive to treat them in the community," Callahan said. "And the recidivism rate goes down."
In a study of a North Carolina mental health court, about 72 percent of those who completed the program were not rearrested within two years. That's compared with 37 percent of those who chose to leave, according to a study published June 18.
But mental health courts are not without their critics. Some say the courts privilege criminal behavior by allowing mentally ill offenders to jump to the front of the line for services as others who aren't committing crimes may wait longer.
In Stanislaus County, the team of experts that gathers every Wednesday includes a registered nurse, prosecutor, deputy public defender, sheriff's deputy, probation officer and counselor.
Defendants meet regularly with a doctor, nurse, probation officer and case manager who can help them find housing or get health insurance. They may have their medications monitored or be tested regularly for drugs. They are encouraged to attend group sessions where they learn about mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction.
"It is definitely not a get-out-of-jail-free pass," said Mary Lynn Miller, a board-certified registered nurse. "It is easier for a client to do their jail time than to face their old habits."
The program accepts defendants facing felony or misdemeanor charges but bars those charged with violent crimes and sex-related offenses.
Upon completion of the program, defendants with felonies may have their conviction reduced to a misdemeanor, and misdemeanor defendants can have their charges dismissed.
Lena Santellano, 33, first came to court a year ago, sporting gang colors and a forehead tattoo that says "Try Me."
Santellano said she's since left her gang buddies behind, is studying to become a peer counselor and is taking medication for depression and anxiety disorders. She bags lunches for the homeless in her spare time.
When asked where she would be if not in mental health court, Santellano doesn't waver: "Dead or in prison."
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.