By Moryt Milo
When the pandemic forced court hearings onto virtual platforms, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Stephen Manley took his Behavioral Health Court hearings to the “client”—the Judge doesn’t refer to individuals as defendants. The judge met his clients virtually in their environments — in residential treatment facilities, homes, apartments, treatment programs, riding a bicycle or in a grandmother’s car — to better understand their lives and challenges.
“It has been a really great experience and here to stay,” Judge Manley said. “I think we are going to have to adjust and adapt to this new reality and virtual proceedings.”
During these remote hearings, the Judge appears in his robe and mask to encourage individuals to follow proper protocols, since this demographic includes the homeless, individuals living in shelters, and sober living environments.
Another benefit to these remote hearings has been minimizing the psychological impact. Coming to court can be frightening and traumatic for those with mental illness. “Judges are scary. They can throw you in jail. You are in a setting with deputies and sheriffs,” Judge Manley said. “The advantage of a remote hearing is that the individual can be more open with you.”
The setting feels safer. The conversation is just between the individual and the judge versus a courtroom where 30-to-70 people are listening. The judge can also check in sooner with individuals and get a better sense of how the person is doing. Oftentimes a mentally ill person leaves the courtroom and becomes distracted with life, even though the judge has explained treatment is a condition of probation, release, or diversion. However, when the individual knows he can speak to the judge directly about challenges and difficulties and receives encouragement immediately upon entering treatment, outcomes improve.
“I think it’s been a real boom for us. It has really helped us be more effective,” he said.
“So many of the mentally ill are convinced they are losers and will be caught up in the criminal justice system for the rest of their lives,” Judge Manley said. He upends that notion, encouraging the person to look for a job or consider going back to school. He wants to be an ally, not an adversary.
“If we don’t meet people where they are, we tend to make everything a one-size-fits-all model and that doesn’t work with mentally ill individuals. Everyone is an individual. Everyone is different,” he said.
Read Moryt Milo’s blog about Diversion Laws in Santa Clara County HERE