Mental Health Court Harms Instead of Helps, Punishing Community Members with Disabilities

“You Send Yourselves to Jail” Coercive Diversion in the Allegheny County Mental Health Court

December 12, 2023

PITTSBURGH — Using data from the Abolitionist Law Center’s Court Watch program, “You Send Yourselves to Jail” Coercive Diversion in Allegheny County Mental Health Court (2023)  exposes the inner workings of a diversion court that harms rather than helps community members.

The Mental Health Court (MHC) is a plea-dependent court that subjects people to most traditional carceral processes and leaves them with a permanent record. MHC revolves around the threat and reality of jail and directly criminalizes the behavioral health problems of its participants, punishing drug use, relapse, and what it perceives as aggression.

Mental health professionals rarely attend MHC proceedings, and defense counsel for participants are present at less than half of hearings. MHC officials belittle and degrade participants in court.

MHC court proceedings border on the absurd. Its judge, Beth Lazzara, is a former personal injury lawyer with no publicly detailed credentials in psychiatry, psychology, behavioral health, therapy, or any other form of mental health treatment. The courtroom is lined with Star Wars plushies. Lazzara has introduced award schemes involving bracelets and Star Wars-themed certificates as carrots to the jail’s stick.

By providing extensive quotations of troubling observations across a range of issues, MHC’s deep and fundamental flaws are examined. This report concludes with targeted recommendations to reduce some of the most severe harms in the MHC.

Funded by: Staunton Farm Foundation