Judge Marcia Hirsch poses for a portrait inside the courtroom...

Judge Marcia Hirsch poses for a portrait inside the courtroom at the Queens County Criminal Court in Queens. (March 31, 2011) Credit: Jason Andrew

After binging on drugs and alcohol to self-medicate his bipolar mental illness, Peter found himself being chased in his car by police.

"I was paranoid," the 46-year-old Ozone Park man recalled of the incident 3 1/2 years ago in which he fled after police tried to pull him over for talking on a cellphone. "I stopped and backed into the patrol car. I was pretty freaked out."

Peter, who asked that his last name not be used because he is a recovering addict, spent four months in Rikers Island, awaiting trial for his first criminal offense.

Given his client's mental health issues and lack of a criminal record, Peter's lawyer recommended that the case be heard in Judge Marcia P. Hirsch's mental health court in Kew Gardens.

Over the last decade such specialty courts have sprung up across the nation. The New York County district attorney's office opened its first mental health court in Manhattan in February.

The Queens district attorney's office accepted the recommendation, and Peter pleaded guilty. He agreed to address his drug and alcohol dependency, get a psychiatric evaluation, submit to random drug tests and get therapy. Meanwhile, he was allowed to live at home with his wife and teenage son.

"If I have dirty urine, the judge will send me away that day," Peter said. "Judge Hirsch is a no-nonsense judge. If you cross her, she doesn't mess around. You go to jail."

The judge said the formula worked in Peter's case: He was monitored by the district attorney's office, had his family's support, and knew the judge would send him to prison if he didn't follow the treatment plan.

"If they don't follow the program, they have to answer to me," said Hirsch, who has presided over the mental health court at Queens County Supreme Court in the five years since its inception.

"I don't see recidivism and this saves taxpayers money," Hirsch said. "The last statistics out there show that it costs $44,000 a year to keep someone in Rikers. It costs $12,000 to keep someone in drug treatment."

Mental health courts, which vary in operation, have the same premise: Defendants must be diagnosed with a mental illness and plead guilty to their criminal charges.

They also must undergo a psychiatric evaluation and follow a mental health professional's prescribed treatment. A judge monitors the defendant's progress by reviewing medical reports. An assistant prosecutor also tracks whether the defendant obeys a judge's orders.

"This is the wave of the future," Hirsch said.

Since the Queens program's inception, 96 defendants have used it successfully.

State Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, who presides over Manhattan's new mental health court, said the long-awaited court is handling several dozen cases.

"It meets a defendant's needs to stabilize their illness, which causes them to commit crimes," Merchan said."This is a fairer approach instead of warehousing the mentally ill in prisons."

Each case is evaluated on its own merit, said Douglas Knight, director of alternative sentencing for Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.

"This is not a cookie-cutter approach. It's about meeting the needs of each individual," said Knight, adding that the mental health court won't handle the case "without the blessing of the complainant."

Peter said he appreciates what the court has done for him. "I got this opportunity to finally do something with myself," Peter said. "Thank God."

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