Five individuals battling mental illness found support and a path to recovery in a Lancaster County specialty court after being charged with crimes.
Four women and a man graduated Wednesday from Mental Health Court, earning certificates and reductions or expungements of their criminal charges.
They each entered the four-phase program after establishing their mental-health struggles played roles in their offenses.
“Programs like this have changed my perception about the legal system,” Keith Elders, a certified peer specialist, said in a keynote message at the Lancaster County Courthouse.
Elders went to prison about 10 years ago, committing a crime while battling mental illness. He lost hope in a system that, he said, demanded he change his behavior, but did not offer adequate support.
Elders commended the graduates for having the courage to enter the strenuous program that can take up to two years to complete. The traditional path of prison or probation perhaps would have been easier.
“You guys chose the harder path,” Elders said. “Recovery is the harder path.”
Mental Health Court involves regular appearances before presiding Judge Margaret Miller, counseling and treatment as deemed necessary, assignment to a probation officer, and a community service project.
The 79 graduates who completed the program since its inception in 2010 each committed to seeking recovery while taking accountability for their crimes, Judge Miller said.
“An investment we make in ourselves is often the hardest investment to make,” Judge Miller said at the ceremony.
Each graduate received a certificate and small golden bell which symbolizes freedom from society’s former views of mental illness. Judge Miller presented the certificates and bells while offering parting words – and congratulatory hugs – to the graduates.
The actual Mental Health Bell is a 300-pound symbol created from the melting of metal shackles and bindings used in asylums until the 1950s. The bell is displayed at the National Mental Health Association’s National Center in Alexandria, Va.
Judge Miller thanked the many county officers and community partners that contribute to Mental Health Court’s successes.
Those agencies and offices include:
Adult Probation and Parole, Public Defender’s Office, Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, Drug and Alcohol Commission, Lancaster County Prison, Recovery InSight, and Behavioral Healthcare Corporation.
Assistant District Attorney Deborah Greathouse represents the Commonwealth at Mental Health Court precedings.
Hamlet, the Courthouse Facility Dog, assisted in picking names of MHC participants in prize drawings.
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