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.