Methods: This qualitative study recruited judges from Philadelphia’s Municipal Court System. Data were drawn from 12 judges using semi-structured interviews. Data were analyzed using a grounded dimensional analysis to examine 1) judges’ perceptions and beliefs about the link between mental illness and violence, and 2) judges’ attitudes about the benefits of treatment for PMIs.
Results: Findings highlighted that judges perceive PMIs as a population with unique needs and that judges, in addition to safe-guarding the public, have a key role in ensuring that vulnerable PMIs receive fair hearings and effective community services. The interviews shed light on judges’ perceptions of PMIs as a violence-prone risk for the public. Specifically, a perception that psychiatric illness, as such, is a key factor that increases the risk for violent behaviors emerged. Although judges generally expressed positive views of the need for psychiatric services, they also had concerns about the decline in institutional care (e.g., state hospitals) and they indicated a need for further means of social control of PMIs to reduce their risk for violence and danger to the public. Lastly, despite the fact that family members are the most likely victims of PMI violence, judges still perceive the general public to be at risk and erroneously assume that PMIs will target strangers when they act violently.
Implications: Judges have significant influence over PMIs who are involved in the criminal justice system. Several themes emerged through the interviews that highlight how judges perceive PMIs as dangerous and treatment resistant. The fact that judges have similar knowledge gaps as the lay public about PMIs can have negative repercussions for this population. If judges reinforce these negative stereotypes in the court room, fair hearings for PMIs may be hindered. However, more research is needed about the extent to which negative stereotypes about PMIs inform judicial decision making. Based on these initial findings, social workers who accompany their mental health clients to court need to be prepared to advocate for appropriate mental health treatment for their clients.