Vol. 45, No. 6

York County Bar Foundation supports major shift in justice system and treatment of mental illness, substance abuse

By Marilyn Cavicchia

A plan that has been in the works for about three years—with the York County (Pa.) Bar Association and York County Bar Foundation lending support all along the way—will come to fruition in August 2020, with the full launch of the Community Action for Recovery and Diversion project.

The intention, according to York County Common Pleas Judge Craig T. Trebilcock, is to unite the justice system and those working in mental health and substance abuse treatment to encourage better outcomes and less recidivism for people whose minor offenses stem from a mental illness or addiction.

Trebilcock, who is also a past president of the YCBA, was motivated to help build CARD by frustrations he has experienced as a judge within the criminal justice system. Typically, he says, a defendant in a case involving an offense related to substance abuse or mental illness pleads guilty and is then ordered to begin treatment—and is given a list of phone numbers to call or offices to go to, in order to get the process started.

“The judge really never knows if that happens,” Trebilcock says, “until the next time the person appears in front of you with a probation violation or a new crime.”

The next crime may be more serious, he adds, because the addiction or mental illness has continued unchecked, and the judge may be forced to give a harsher sentence. If someone does seek treatment, he added, the treatment provider may lack important information about the person’s prior history.

Trebilcock has had an opportunity to see firsthand how a less punitive, more seamless approach can yield much better results because he also serves as a treatment court judge, working in courts specifically for veterans and for people who have been using opioids. In that setting, he says, connections between the criminal justice and treatment systems are much closer—and outcomes are much better, for everyone concerned.

Typically, he says, the traditional approach to criminal justice involving substance abuse or mental illness results in a success rate of about 45 percent—with the measure of success being whether the person reappears in court after committing a new crime. The success rate for treatment courts, using that same measure, ranges from 80 to 90 percent, he notes.

CARD places a high priority on early intervention—something that Trebilcock says is painfully lacking in the current system. “From the time somebody's in the backseat of the police car until the time they see me and I can actually help by ordering mental health or drug treatment is about six months,” he explains—and this is more than enough time for a bad situation to become worse.

In recent years, York County has been hit especially hard by the nationwide opioid crisis, he adds, and the only positive thing that arose from this is a hard but needed lesson that “time is not our friend—because people die in those six months.”

A cornerstone of CARD, Trebilcock says, is for the offender to receive a drug and alcohol and mental health evaluation and then appear before a magisterial district judge (akin to a justice of the peace in many states)—all on the day they are picked up in the police car. Those without a significant prior record will not face charges if they agree to start treatment immediately and complete that treatment. Those who do have a significant prior record will be charged, but the charges will be dropped if they complete treatment.

A ‘culture shift’

Launching the CARD project, Trebilcock says, means taking the treatment court model and adapting it for use throughout the entire criminal justice system in York County, in partnership with county health authorities  and with a major health care provider called WellSpan. It’s a partnership that requires a “culture shift” for lawyers and judges, Trebilcock notes, as treatment will take more of a leading role, with the role of the justice system becoming more secondary.

“Locking someone up in a small cage has never, ever stopped addiction, and it has never, ever cured mental health issues,” Trebilcock says, adding, “in the nine years that I’ve been on the bench, about 80 percent of the people who appear before me [suffer from] mental illness and substance abuse.”

In August, WellSpan will open a facility where police can bring nonviolent offenders who need substance abuse or mental health treatment, rather than taking them to jail. Probation officers and the director of CARD will work within this facility, Trebilcock says, so that they and the treatment professionals can be in ongoing communication regarding each offender and his or her needs.

Ultimately, this facility will evolve and grow to be something he calls a wellness and deferral center, where representatives from many local social services organizations—all currently working in “silos” and competing for scarce grant funding to provide services that may overlap—will maintain a presence. Under one roof, this center will offer child care, classes, treatment for substance and mental health problems, a place to meet with probation officers, and assistance with employment and housing.

The bar as a driving force

The bar foundation and association's involvement is part of a culture shift that they, too, have been leading, says Carolyn Steinhauser, a member of the YCBF board. More than a decade ago, she notes, it was decided that adding some nonlawyers to the bar foundation board might help bring in different talents and skills. With a professional background in community service and philanthropy as well as experience on other boards, Steinhauser was the first such YCBF board member.

The idea of looking out toward the broader community to find good volunteers has since been “institutionalized,” both among volunteer leaders and staff, Steinhauser says, adding, “We started with revamping the grants committee and putting all the kinds of people on the grants committee who should be on there representing the community.” Steinhauser is currently co-chair of that committee and also serves on the philanthropy committee. 

Steinhauser credits YCBA and YCBF Chief Executive Officer Victoria Connor as a “major driving force” in leading a much more fundamental shift: “We’ve built this organization with a real focus on the legal community’s role in community change.”

The bar (both association and foundation) has steadily built this reputation by supporting innovative programs that address community issues, such as a truancy prevention effort that became a state model and then a national model. For another project, called Shelter from the Storm, the YCBA pledged to match up to $1 million in fundraising by the YCBF with up to $2 million for the foundation’s endowment, to maintain a family law attorney at a local legal aid agency and an access-to-justice coordinator within the bar.

“The bar association has been a magnificent partner in this whole thing,” Steinhauser says, “as we’ve built things that are accomplishing real systemic change.”

As for CARD, she notes, the bar foundation became involved at the earliest stages by providing the first grant, toward producing a concept paper that laid out the new idea and what was needed to move it forward. Now that CARD has a start-up budget for its first three years, the YCBF has contributed the first grant toward its operations, in the amount of $40,000. This commitment, bolstered by the bar’s reputation as “a major player in law-related community issues,” helped lend credibility to an appeal to other funders (including York County itself and three private foundations). The entire three-year start-up budget of around $500,000 is now covered, Steinhauser says.

As important as start-up money is, Trebilcock notes, even more important to CARD’s success is the bar’s role in leading change within the York community.

“And it’s not just change in the courthouse,” he believes. “This requires culture change from the elected officials, from the police, from the county commissioners, from the business leaders, from the average members of the community, on how they want to see justice done in our community.”