Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Stephen V. Manley seems to embody the maxim that the more you do, the more you can do.
For 25 years, Judge Manley locally and nationally has championed the development of special court programs aimed at getting offenders with mental illness, substance use disorders, or both, into treatment and out of jail.
Today, Judge Manley presides over all misdemeanor and felony drug and mental health cases in his county, supervising more than 2,300 offenders who participate in treatment and rehabilitation services while on probation or parole. He has a homeless court that goes into the community, a large program for mentally ill military veterans, a reentry court for mentally ill parolees who violate probation, and more..
Because Judge Manley favors a “triage and urgent care model,” his courtroom is often a noisy hive of activity.
“I believe in having assessments done as fast as possible,” Judge Manley said.
Offenders who may be in an acute state following arrest get seen immediately by one of three psychiatrists, as well as substance abuse assessors, housing specialists, and others who have offices near the courtroom. There is even an area where homeless people can get supplies, clothes, backpacks, maybe a sleeping bag. Judge Manley is trying to add regular medical services on some days.
Judge Manley witnesses the daily challenges that people in his programs face, and he sympathizes.
There just are not enough treatment beds for the people who need them, and as a result many languish on the streets or in jail. “In my view, we just really haven’t given them the opportunity for treatment that they should be given,” he said.
Judge Manley has been sounding that theme since 1994, when he founded his county’s pioneering Drug Treatment Court, which substituted treatment and accountability for traditional punishment. He then fought for ongoing state funding for drug courts, including for juveniles.
Four years later, after seeing how mentally ill people were excluded from drug treatment, Judge Manley founded a county mental health court, which is now one of the largest programs of its kind in the nation, and which research has credited with reduced recidivism.
“What I saw was a system that was not fair. We were not really giving mentally ill offenders any chance at all, and there were too many of them who were just ignored,” he said.
Judge Manley’s programs have shown that people with mental illness can stay out of jail with proper support. Every day, there is a moment that gives him energy to continue, like when a defendant in his 50s recently opened his first checking account.
“You see that, and you look at the past, and you see what they’ve overcome, and you’ve got to believe there’s hope,” he said. “We work hard on trying to motivate people: ‘Stay in treatment, do your best, come back and see me, and we’ll talk some more.’ ”
Over the years, Judge Manley has continued finding new ways to address problems, taking positions on myriad committees and commissions and task forces as he pushes for change. Last year, Judge Manley helped get a novel state law signed that allows criminal defendants to avoid convictions by going through mental health programs, and he has been training other judges how to use it. He also advocated for new rules that now let some mentally ill felons be treated locally instead of in state hospitals.
One of the most vexing issues Judge Manley is currently addressing is the lack of crisis stabilization, sobering, and triage centers where police can take mentally ill and substance using people instead of jails and hospital emergency rooms. Judge Manley wants to see more treatment beds available for people who have both mental and substance use disorders, not just one or the other.
“Ninety percent of the people I see use drugs and are also mentally ill,” he said. “You have to treat both conditions.”