Courts Can Do More Than Just Administer Jail Sentences


Our criminal justice system has many flaws. Few have seen more of them than Judge Stephen Manley of Santa Clara County.

This is the first profile in a special series on the American criminal justice system, exploring solutions and highlighting the stories of pioneers who are transforming a troubled system.

The Californian prison system is failing its mentally-ill and drug-addicted inmates, and as a result they keep coming back. There are now ten times as many mentally-ill individuals in jails and state prisons than there are in state mental hospitals. Over half of all jail and prison inmates are there for crimes committed while using either drugs or alcohol. Many receive little to no treatment during their time in prison.

Upon release, they walk out into a reality that includes homelessness, and a severe lack of social support. Thus, so many find themselves back in front of a judge in no time. It’s safe to say that the current criminal justice system is a revolving door of recidivism.

“I saw this long ago when I first started doing this,” says Santa Clara County Judge Stephen Manley who has been in criminal justice for more than three decades.


Understanding the Scope of the Problem

As of 2016, over 80,000 people sit in one of California’s many jails. A huge proportion of California’s jail population consists of mentally-ill and drug addicted inmates. At the Main Jail and Elmwood in Milpitas, an estimated 43 percent of inmates struggle with a mental illness. In Alameda County, sheriffs put that figure at just under 50 percent.

Reduced to just a number in the huge California prison system, most inmates are not getting the treatment they need. Mentally ill inmates tend to spend longer in jail or prison than non-mentally ill inmates. They also cost more to keep in prison than the average inmate.

When they finally leave, the problems that got them locked up in the first place are still there. And when they are turfed out, many have nowhere to live.

Five years ago, the state of California had one of the highest rates of recidivism in the United States: over 65 percent of offenders found themselves back in jail within three years of their release.

Around a third of these re-admissions nationwide are due to parole violations. Many offenders have been in and out of the criminal justice system since they were young — they simply do not know how to live in the outside world.

Now Judge Manley is changing the way he and the criminal justice system look after the state’s vulnerable inmates — by letting them all out of jail and into treatment.

Manley has worked with criminal justice offenders for the over thirty years. He knows the US criminal justice system inside and out, its successes and its shortcomings. Now he’s trying a radical new approach to tackle the United States’ miserable outcomes in criminal justice.

“I do not put people into jail because they are actively using drugs. I am teaching them that they need to solve the problem,” Manley says. “And I give them a chance to do it.”

A Personal Approach to Criminal Justice

A day in one of Judge Manley’s courts is a very different experience to a ‘normal’ court. It’s much more like being in an ER. It’s chaotic, it’s busy, and people are constantly talking over each other.

Judge Manley runs Santa Clara County’s innovative drug and mental health courts where mentally-ill or drug-addicted offenders are offered tailored treatment programs in lieu of jail time.

Manley launched the courts in 1994 and 1998, respectively, after noticing the same people appearing before him time and time again. His solution was to look at outcomes, something the judicial system as a whole fails to do.

Other judges, says Manley, are not responsible for looking at outcomes — they simply decide guilt or innocence and prison times. His approach is to focus on a different question:

“Is this person, when they have finished being with me, are they going to be doing in their view any better in their lives?” he asks.

Manley started his career as a traditional judge. These days his role is different. He no longer decides guilt or innocence. Now, instead of convicting people, Manley spends his days releasing them.

It’s a noisy affair; people talk continuously, conducting assessments and discussing treatment options. The court is crammed with all aspects of the criminal justice system: probation officers, mental health professionals, social workers — and each person has an opportunity to share their views. It is this departure from normal courtroom formality that has made Manley’s approach so revolutionary.

“My view,” says Manley, “is that you have to look at the individual that appears before you and try to figure that person out as best you can. Try to see what is holding them back from doing better in the community and staying in the community, and what can you do to help them be a success.”

At any one time, Manley is working with over 1,400 offenders, although he prefers to call them ”clients.” This in itself is revealing of the nature of his approach. It’s both personal and flexible, aimed at helping people get back on track, not just into prison.

His clients are difficult cases. Many have grown up in foster care or dysfunctional families. Manley estimates that 70 to 80 percent of the women have been molested or physically abused as children, as well as around 40 percent of the men.

He knows this because he talks personally to every single one of them. If you don’t understand the people you are working with, he says, you won’t get anywhere.

“I had a couple of 20 year-olds this morning who were being 20 year-olds. Being little, you know, immature jerks. And they just aren’t doing what they should do, which is really simple. And they’re trying to con me. If you don’t understand that, or if you get mad, you don’t get anywhere,” he says.

“I understand where they’re coming from. That’s all they’ve ever learned. They don’t know what love is, they don’t trust anybody. They don’t trust me. You gotta work with that.”

Manley’s relationship with his clients is a lot more personal than one might expect to see in court. “We’re not getting anywhere by all this jamming people into huge groups,” he says. “We need to work with them individually and we need to be very flexible.”

The first fifteen minutes of each session are spent discussing the client’s goals, and why they are not succeeding.

There are frequent pep talks. Sometimes even hugs.

“They do not believe in themselves, they think they’re failures, losers, can’t do anything” Manley says. “I spend a lot of time telling them ‘No. You can’t think that way, You gotta believe in yourself, you’ve got to try, gotta keep trying. You’re gonna fall down, you’re gonna get up.”

One of the lessons he’s learned over time, however, is that it’s important to temper expectations. “The individual can only do so much,” says Manley. “They may have a dream; they want to get a job, they want to take care of their parents…And they just cannot do it. They gotta figure out how to take care of themselves first.”

So he counts success in the little stuff. One of his goals for the more difficult clients is to go a month without being arrested for anything. There’s even a prize on offer for those who succeed.

“Very few of them win it,” he chuckles, “but more and more are doing it.”

Not everyone working with offenders knows how to get on their level the way he does. And Manley believes this is at the root of the issue: “A lot of it comes down to judges and the criminal justice system doesn’t understand how to work with these folks,” he says.

A Justice System Design for Rehabilitation

Clients coming through Manley’s court leave with thorough and highly personalized treatment plans. These are designed to make it as easy as possible for the client to stay on track. The plan always includes housing (the majority of his clients are homeless) and usually more than one kind of mental health or rehabilitation treatment.

One of his current clients, for example, is taking medication and battling a meth addiction. At the same time, he is also undergoing mental health treatment, moral reconation therapy (MRT), anger management classes, and is taking life skills classes to learn how to live outside of jail.

The clients often get the chance to give a lot of input into their treatment plan: they can state what they should or shouldn’t have to do, what are their needs, their goals. It helps Manley and his team tailor treatment plans that are realistic and address everything they can.

“They lie a lot of course,” he concedes, “but we expect that. On the other hand some of them are incredibly honest and truthful and are able to identify things that we don’t know about that are needs that they have.”

Every aspect of Manley’s court reflects this effort to meet people on their level. Each step of the process is made as easy as possible for clients. When a client walks out of Manley’s court they have immediate access to the range of services and resources that share the second floor alongside his courtroom. He’s taking the services directly to the people that need them.

The one place we know people will usually come, either in jail or out of jail, is the courtroom, because they’re afraid. It’s the one thing that they’ll do,” Manley explains. They won’t do anything else I tell them to do but they’ll do that.”



© Gabriele Maltinti / Adobe Stock”

Now in that same space, there are psychiatrists, case managers, housing specialists — even a clothing closet. Manley acknowledges that getting people to stay on track with treatment is difficult. So he and his team are removing as many of the barriers as possible.I think in five years from now this will be much more of a service centre on the second floor than a courthouse” he says.

To Manley the key question is “How can I convince the person that they can do this?”

And perhaps more importantly, can they do it? Is it a reasonable request? Manley and his team work off the principle that if a client can do something, they must do it. If not, they will change it.

Already there have been huge changes in the way the probation system operates. Offenders used to travel to meet with their probation officer (or rather didn’t); now the probation officers come to them. In fact, Manley has a team of probation officers that operate out of a community center. From here, they run trauma groups, drug testing, men’s and women’s groups. They’ll even go out and meet a client at a Denny’s, situated near the freeway that the client lives under.

Agencies are starting to change the way they work with people.

Other solutions seem obvious. The sheriff’s departments are no longer releasing mentally ill and homeless offenders at 2 o’clock in the morning. Clients are given their medication when they leave the jail. These are, accordingly to Manley, “major accomplishments. Not by me, but by the system.”

However, not everyone completes the program. But so far, he says, it has been incredibly successful. It can take 3 to 4 years but Manley reports that over 70 percent of clients complete the program. He also estimates that the jail population has been reduced by 25 percent in just a year and a half. And no, there has not been an increase in other crimes as a result.

“What that’s all attributable to,” Manley argues, “is that we’re trying so hard to keep people out.”

Institutional Barriers to Reform

Although there has been some significant headway made, changes in the criminal justice system are notoriously slow. For years Judge Manley has been tirelessly advocating for treatment and recovery solutions. And still his efforts are met with institutional roadblocks time and time again.

One of the biggest hurdles Manley and his team face is the lack of treatment capacity. It’s all very well diverting the mentally ill, but where to?

“At every level of treatment we need to do treatment differently and we need to have more of it,” Manley says. “And we just don’t have it. To me that is a constant struggle.”

The lack of concurrent treatment for mental health and drug abuse is particularly frustrating. Manley estimates that 75 percent of the individuals coming through his courts have a co-occurring substance abuse disorder in addition to mental illness. Despite this, treatment for mental health problems and drug addiction are rarely dealt with in conjunction.



© Gino Santa Maria/ Adobe Stock

“It’s created a divide between the two critical modalities of treatment,” Manley explains, “so they are separate and remain separate even though they really should be treated together.” He’s been trying to change this system in orer to bridge the divide for the past ten years but has had little success.

Even when new treatment centers have the funding and permission needed to be built, public opposition stops it. No one wants it near them. This NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard), as Judge Manley calls it, poses a real problem. Despite strong public support for treatment and decriminalization, the public just does not want these people near them.

“It’s a bizarre world we live in,” Manley remarks. “Even if you can convince the legislator and the governor to give more money for treatment capacity, nobody builds it because there is such resistance from the community.”

What he wants is a complete revamp of the system. In an ideal world, Manley envisions a system where the police don’t take people to jail, but instead to a mental health treatment center. From there, he explains, they could be assessed and then moved on to the right level of treatment without ever touching jail.

“The police would never object to that if we had a place, but we don’t. We don’t have one anywhere in California. I mean Los Angeles is trying but it’s a very small number of people,” he says.

“I’m very proud of them,” he adds.

The problem, in Manley’s opinion, goes all the way up. As the third branch of government, the courts need to take on more of a leadership role. “They need to be less reactive and more proactive. If we changed the way we ran our business, our responsibilities, and took an active role, I think everything would dramatically change in criminal justice,” he says.

“I think we just sit back and say we can’t ethically do anything but our job of sitting in our chambers and then going into the courtroom and dispensing justice. We can’t get involved with anybody else. And I’ve been listening to that my whole judicial career,” he continues.

“That’s crazy because that’s what really holds everything back. The courts just sit back and do nothing. Yet we are the greatest change agent that we could find.”

What we can expect is for Judge Manley to keep pushing for that chance. Throughout his long career, he has been at the forefront of criminal justice reform. Many of his former colleagues used to laugh at him, calling him a social worker or even unethical (although he adds that most of those who did are now retired). And although it has taken years of lobbying, he says he is beginning to see a change. Progress is slow, but what matters is that it’s happening.

“Until you get a complete commitment from everyone to change, nothing happens. You do what I do which is you keep trying. But now we have that commitment. Maybe it took 17 years but I don’t care, we’re getting somewhere.”

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