A different kind of justice
In mental-health court, Judge Stephen Manley helps offenders get back on their feet
Not every courtroom has a judge who hugs you before he sets you free. In Santa Clara County's Department 64, where those who are mentally ill or addicted to drugs are given another chance at life, justice is anything but impersonal.
Presiding over the wood-paneled courtroom in San Jose is Superior Court Judge Stephen Manley, a 40-year Palo Alto resident who founded the county's first mental-health court, which has become one of the largest in the country.
There, he sees about 1,200 defendants a year and works with a team of psychiatrists, case workers and probation officers to rehabilitate and reintegrate past offenders back into their communities. His ultimate goals: to change lives for good -- and prevent prison overcrowding.
Sometimes, Manley's court feels like a support-group meeting. Everyone gets a round of applause, a song on their birthday and a hug from the judge when they graduate.
"They've been on the streets; they've been homeless. Who sings 'Happy Birthday' to a homeless person? No one," he said.
For many defendants who come from extremely troubled and traumatic backgrounds, Manley's court provides more than a much-needed transition from jail to freedom. It is the first place where someone believed they could succeed.
He holds a graduation ceremony this month for those who are ready to move on from the program.
"Many of these defendants have never completed anything in their lives," he said.
In the mental-health court model, "the judge takes personal responsibility for sharing in the outcomes," Manley explained. "You encourage them, try to urge them, coerce them to believe in themselves."
Through "an incredible amount of coordination," case workers, probation officers, therapists and attorneys come together through the court to help the defendant access mental-health services, drug-rehabilitation treatment, housing and life-skills training, Manley said.
"Judge Manley has recreated the court as a medium that supports positive transformation," said Gary Giarretto, a deputy probation officer who has worked with mental-health cases in Manley's courtroom for six years.
Taped to the door of his courtroom, a sign reads, "One day at a time," which is one of Manley's mantras.
The defendants range from minor to violent offenders who have served jail sentences already. Most are homeless and unemployed, and many suffer from schizophrenia or other severe mental illnesses.
"This is a population that nobody would want anything to do with. It would be easy to write them off," said Dana Overstreet, supervising deputy district attorney, who has worked with the judge for nine years and oversees cases with violent, mentally ill offenders.
"There would be no places to put these people if it weren't for Judge Manley."
Manley, a Stanford graduate and San Diego native, lives in south Palo Alto with his wife, Margo. The two are raising their two young granddaughters while their son is serving in the military overseas.
On the bench, the judge comes across as an enthusiastic, compassionate father figure for the defendants.
He believes the courtroom should be the epicenter of those services, coordinating individualized aid and being a cheerleader for the defendants.
Outside the courtroom, he is a passionate and driven advocate for improved mental-health services, increased funding, and creative and cost-effective ways to keep the prison population down.
"Punishment has its place, but we have to move beyond that because we're running out of space," he said.
Last year's 278 graduates saved the state and county $20 million between reduced prison and jail sentences, according to 2006 Santa Clara County Mental Health Court data.
Colleagues say Manley works tirelessly behind the scenes, lobbying at the national, state and county levels to secure grant money to assist those with mental illness and drug addictions.
"He is up in Sacramento all the time. He is just incredible at getting grants and federal funding," Overstreet said.
Currently, he is tackling the divide in state funding for those who suffer both mental illness and drug addiction. Proposition 36 allows nonviolent drug offenders to receive substance-abuse treatment instead of jail time, and Proposition 63 supports mental-health services. Manley hopes to be able to get funding redirected for those with "co-occurring disorders."
Manley strives for an integration of services, so a person released from jail doesn't immediately commit another crime and wind up back behind bars.
"We don't protect the public by warehousing people and dumping back in the community expecting they've changed," he said.
A graduate of Manley's court, 53-year-old Mary Oaks credits Judge Manley with the huge turnaround in her life.
"I'd been doing drugs for 30 years. I thought I'd keep doing them until I died," she said. After nine months in Manley's court, she graduated in February. In her backpack, she proudly carries her graduation certificate and a Polaroid of herself with the judge.
And even though she no longer has to make monthly appearances in Department 64, Oaks still plans to attend regularly to hear Manley's motivational messages.
"I'm going to go back to that courtroom all the time. I just like listening," she said. "I always sat there and heard every word he says, and it all makes sense."
Staff Writer Molly Tanenbaum can be e-mailed at email@example.com.