By Paula Neuman
In the four months since Elizabeth DiSanto took the 27th District Court bench, she has met with surprises — good and bad — even though she served as the court’s magistrate for nine years and had an insider point of view of how the system works.
“The most surprising thing about being a judge, thus far, is how moving it is for a defendant to succeed in achieving various goals set forth for probation and/or bond,” said DiSanto, a Wyandotte resident.
That’s the good surprise. Then there’s this:
“Another surprise has been the amount of disrespect some people, and even some attorneys, have for the bench and the legal system as a whole,” DiSanto said.
Her responsibilities have increased since she was elected to the bench, but she’s working hard and also putting in efforts to expand the court’s impact.
For one thing, DiSanto has brought court proceeding to schools in an effort to reach out to kids in middle school and high school about their actions and consequences.
“Holding a court session in high school is impactful on students because it’s happening right in front of them,” she said. “Sometimes, young individuals do not believe something happens unless they see it happening. Many students need to hear certain facts and see the consequences of decisions made by individuals.”
For another thing, the judge is in the process of applying for a grant to establish a district mental health court — a court modeled after drug court and established because so many people with serious mental health problems end up in the criminal justice system.
According to the state of Michigan, where more than 20 mental health courts are already in place:
“Mental health court diverts select defendants with mental illness into judicially-supervised, community-based treatment. Defendants are invited to participate following a specialized screening and assessment, and they may choose to decline participation. For those who agree to the terms and conditions of community-based supervision, a team of court staff and mental health professionals work together to develop treatment plans and supervise participants in the community.
“Participants appear at regular status hearings during which incentives are offered to encourage adherence to court conditions, sanctions for nonadherence are handed down, and treatment plans and other conditions are periodically reviewed for appropriateness.”
Said DiSanto: “I see firsthand the number of defendants that need mental health treatment. Often, the defendant is not receiving the treatment he or she needs while in custody.”
Participating in a mental health court allows a defendant to get treatment, to take accountability for his or her actions, and to have a measure of control of his or her treatment, she said. For the right defendant, it can mean treatment instead of jail.
“I am keenly aware of individuals that self-medicate with alcohol and other substances to mask the mental illness he or she suffers from,” DiSanto said. “One of the goals of the mental health court is to help the participant acknowledge that, and learn coping mechanisms.”
State data from 2009-13 shows that mental health court participants have a significantly lower rate of recidivism — committing more crimes — than those who are processed through “regular” court.
How does the DiSanto, who deals daily with case after case involving people who been at the very least irresponsible, keep from losing faith in humanity?
“I have spent a lot of time in public service arenas, as well as having been a family law attorney,” she said. “I would see people in the most raw and vulnerable states. I understand people have many different issues they may be going through on any given day. While many of the cases before me involved irresponsible decisions, some of those individuals are one-time offenders. They learn from their irresponsible decisions.”
She has less sympathy for defendants who commit violent and dishonest crimes, however.
“My favorite part of the job is when I can make a difference in an individual’s life, and try to help him or her accept accountability for his or her decisions,” DiSanto said.
Getting that person to accept accountability is often the most challenging part of the job, she added.
In her spare time, she loves to be with her husband and three children, and she enjoys watching and playing various sports. DiSanto is very active in the community in a variety of ways, including Wyandotte Rotary and Trenton-Riverview Fraternal Order of Police Lodge.
“I wanted to become a judge so that I could contribute in a more significant way to the communities I represent and reside in,” she said.