Mental Health Courts Offer Unique Approach to Changing Lives

Marian Sanders Wright
Marian Sanders Wright

Marian Sanders Wright waits anxiously on the hard wooden bench as the names of more than a dozen graduates are slowly recited. This is a special day for the feisty 57-year-old grandmother of two, who is ready to have her say at the culmination of one of the proudest moments of her life.

Finally, as her name is called, she rushes to the side of Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey for a congratulatory handshake and quick photo opportunity as she is awarded her prized 8-1/2 by 10-inch certificate of completion.

Stylishly dressed in a hot pink designer sweater set and matching pink earrings, with makeup and hair artfully done, Wright quickly assumes her post at the front of the room to give her fellow graduates a final encouraging word before returning to the challenges of everyday life. She is the epitome of poise, grace and confidence. She is also a successful graduate of the Baltimore City District Court Mental Health Court.

“We come from all walks of life, age groups, nationalities, races,” Wright said as she addressed the June 2009 graduating class. “No, we were not criminals . . . but we had a mental issue.”

Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey and Ms. Wright

Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey
and Ms. Wright

Just two years earlier, in a fit of rage and indignation, Wright stabbed her family attorney in the hand with a pen. In a traditional court of law, she would have faced incarceration and fines. However, her erratic behavior, severe mood swings and seizures earned her a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and an opportunity for treatment and a second chance in Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey’s second-floor courtroom of the John R. Hargrove Sr. District Courthouse in South Baltimore.

Although Wright avoided jail time, Judge Cooksey committed her to 45 days at Spring Grove Hospital Center. The oldest hospital for the mentally ill in Maryland, Spring Grove provides acute, sub-acute and long-term psychiatric care to adults.

At Spring Grove, Wright was a stand-out for her impromptu jazz vocals and offering an encouraging word to other patients who were having problems adjusting to the inpatient treatment center. After her stint at the hospital,

Wright was on probation for more than a year. She was assigned a psychiatrist and a neurologist, and underwent a regimen of therapy and multiple medications. Today, she is a new woman and she has
a new life.

Now retired from owning her own cleaning service, Wright is a role model for her achievements and is often a guest speaker at mental health court graduation ceremonies in Judge Cooksey’s courtroom. She serves as the elected volunteer Residential Advisory Board (RAB) delegate for her public housing community, Chase House, representing 187 tenants. She pays for and prepares lunches for residents and hosts other activities. Last year, she was elected vice president of her tenant council board. She has even met the governor.

Letter of thanks to MHC Judge Mimi Cooper from a successful graduate
Letter of thanks to MHC Judge
Mimi Cooper from a successful graduate

“Judge Cooksey’s mental health court gave me a second chance to change my behavior and my thinking, and the opportunity to look forward to a productive future,” Wright said.

Launched in 2002 as the first in the state, Baltimore City’s mental health court is an offshoot of District Court that offers a specialized docket every Monday and Thursday for defendants with mental illnesses. Modeled after drug courts, it is considered a “problem-solving court” in that it substitutes a problem-solving approach for the traditional criminal court processing. Mental health courts have also been created in Harford and Prince George’s counties. Participants are identified through mental health screening and assessments, and voluntarily participate in a judicially supervised treatment plan developed jointly by a team of court staff and mental health professionals.

The overarching goal is to decrease the frequency of participants’ contact with the criminal justice system by providing judicial leadership to improve the social functioning, employment linkage, housing needs, treatment, and support services for this very special population, Judge Cooksey explained.

Participants interact with clinical providers, parole and probation staff, prosecutors from the state’s attorney’s office, and other agencies on a recurring basis to provide the support needed to ensure their success, she added.

“Everyone plays significant roles, both collectively and individually,” said Judge Cooksey, who has been working with the court since its inception. “Everybody is necessary for the smooth running and operation.”

Although Judge Cooksey retired from the court in April 2008, she continues to serve as a recalled judge, working alongside Judge George Lipman to address the needs of some of the city’s most troubled residents.

Individualized treatment plans and ongoing judicial monitoring address both the mental health needs of offenders and public safety concerns of communities. The court also works to resolve the underlying problems that contribute to criminal behavior to lower instances of recidivism in this population, Judge Cooksey said. Only misdemeanors and felonies that fall within the jurisdiction of the District Court are heard, and juveniles are not allowed to enter the program. More than 300 individuals are obtaining services and treatment through the court’s specialized program.

Judge Cooksey cited interagency cooperation as a critical ingredient for the court’s success with clients like Wright.

Mental Health Court judges frequently receive thank you cards from graduates
Mental Health Court judges frequently
receive thank you cards from graduates

“[Graduation] is quite an achievement. It involves motivation, hard work and a desire to do better. This is not an easy program,” Judge Cooksey said. “Everyone deserves to be proud of their accomplishments.”

“This is a wonderful program and it is bringing everyone together for a wonderful cause because of the vision of Judge Charlotte Cooksey,” said Baltimore City State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy during Wright’s graduation ceremony. “Our motto is, working together, we can make a difference.”

Most of the proud graduates bear no outward scars of the long and sometimes arduous journey that led them to Cooksey’s courtroom. Their crimes vary in seriousness and in number—from petty theft and larceny to the more serious drug charges and violent crimes. There are some, like Wright, who are highly functioning and, at first glance, display no noticeable symptoms of mental illness, making their problems much harder to detect. Others may demonstrate more obvious eccentric or erratic behaviors tied to developmental disabilities, trauma disorders or more serious mental illnesses.

Mental illness in Maryland

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maryland, mental illness refers to a group of disorders causing mild, moderate or severe disturbances in thinking, feeling, and relating. These disorders are influenced by biochemical disturbances in the brain and can result in a substantially diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life. Those with mental illnesses are usually of normal and even higher intelligence levels, although they may have difficulty performing at a normal level due to their illness.

In Maryland, approximately 325,000 Maryland residents between the ages of 15 and 54 experience some form of a depressive disorder but, according to recent statistics, fewer than half sought treatment. One in five Maryland families is affected by mental illness, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Across the country, approximately 57.7 million Americans experience a mental health disorder in a given year, according to Alliance’s national headquarters. And despite effective treatments, there are long delays—sometimes decades—between the first onset of symptoms and when people seek and receive treatment.

Rosalie’s secret

Rosalie Mosley
Rosalie Mosley

Rosalie Mosley began experimenting with drugs at age 9, stemming from acts of sexual abuse that started when she was just two years old. By age 17, she had begun using prescription drugs to dull the pain of her abuse.

“I was hiding a secret. I was hiding the sexual abuse. I didn’t have to feel it or think about it,” Mosley said.

Her drug use later escalated to heroin, as she attempted to suppress the memories of a verbally abusive stepfather and a mother who seemed devoid of love or compassion.

“I was like an old shoe—nobody wanted me,” said Mosley, one of six children. “I was in and out of the system. I was a knucklehead, but my home life wasn’t good.”

Four years ago, following another arrest for buying drugs, she was placed on probation but soon was re-arrested. She had already been to jail and rehab. However, an astute public defender recognized that she would be a good candidate for Judge Cooksey’s mental health court.

“I worked hard,” Mosley said. “They did very well getting me the things I needed so that I could work on myself and find out what was the root of my problem and find out why I was using.”

Mosley, a 43-year-old mother of five, was diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder caused by her childhood abuse. She received intensive therapy and the proper medications.

In spite of a few setbacks, with court monitoring and treatment, it took Mosley two years to complete the mental health court program. She graduated in November 2009, and now boasts that she has been clean for almost three years and is no longer on probation.

“Judge Cooksey was my biggest fan. I was so excited that somebody saw something in me and they thought I was worth saving,” Mosley said. “They knew I wanted to get my life straight and they gave me the tools.”

“When I was done with the program, I felt like my whole life had turned around. I was a new person,” Mosley said. “I wasn’t scared. I was no longer a victim. I was a survivor.”

Mosley, who is mentally challenged, continues to see a therapist every week, attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings, has regular checkups to monitor her diabetes, exercises regularly and eats right.

An advocate for mental health courts, Mosley said she believes more of these courts should be instituted across the state to help others batting mental illness.

“If they had other programs like this set up, I know the crime rates would go down because it makes me more cautious to do the right thing, make the right choices,” Mosley said. “But when mentally ill people continue getting locked up, you never get to the root of the problem.”

CameraMental Health Court Photos

Coming Soon

Part II of this series on mental health courts, “A day in the life of a mental health court judge,” will be featured in the next edition of Justice Matters.

Mental Health Court is a specialized District Court docket established for defendants with mental illness. Maryland has only three such courts, but they are impacting the lives of hundreds of individuals each year.

These courts are led by retired Baltimore City District Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey, Harford County District Judge Mimi Cooper, Prince George’s County District Judge Patrice E. Lewis, and Baltimore City District Judge George M. Lipman.

JUdge Charlotte M. Cooksey JUdge Mimi Cooper Judge Patrice Lewis Judge George Lipman
Judges Charlotte Cooksey, Mimi Cooper, Patrice Lewis, and George Lipman