Mental Health Courts
Mental health courts are specialized court dockets that utilize problem-solving techniques to handle criminal cases involving individuals with mental illness. These programs often focus on engaging participants in community-based treatment and link them to social services.
They are becoming increasingly popular throughout the United States, although many are not fully based on research. However, there is an abundance of data that suggests these programs can reduce arrests and recidivism rates.
What is a mental health court?
Mental health courts are a new approach to dealing with non-violent offenders who have mental health disorders. They are being established and implemented in communities across the country.
They involve collaboration between prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and other court personnel. They are aimed at diverting non-violent offenders diagnosed with mental illnesses or co-occurring conditions to treatment and other services in an effort to improve public safety and reduce recidivism.
To be effective, mental health courts must focus on ensuring that people with mental illness can be diverted from the criminal justice system at the earliest possible time and without unnecessary or inappropriate coercion.
To that end, advocates must work to ensure that all mental health courts, by whatever name they are called, follow the standards and procedures that assure minimally coercive and de-stigmatizing practices. This means leaving civil commitment as the central standard for authorization of coercion, when it is needed and justified, and holding charges in abeyance until successful completion of a mental health court program.
Who is eligible to participate in a mental health court?
Mental health courts focus on people who have a mental illness and are involved with the criminal justice system. This diverting process is designed to reduce recidivism, improve public safety and help participants regain productive lives.
Eligible defendants are those who are charged with a misdemeanor or felony and suffer from a severe mental illness that is related to their current involvement in the criminal justice system. They may be referred to mental health courts by defense attorneys, judges and service providers.
How do mental health courts work?
Mental health courts are growing quickly across the United States. They are often a part of a broader trend to shift the criminal justice system away from punishment and towards treatment.
However, research has been scant on the effectiveness of these programs. And there are concerns about the impact of these courts on incarceration rates, which are rising rapidly and are disproportionately affecting people with mental illnesses.
One of the main barriers to entry into a mental health court is the type of charge that a person has been charged with. For example, people who have been arrested for a violent crime or a drug charge are much more likely to succeed in getting their case referred to the court than those who are accused of a non-violent misdemeanor.
The selection process is complex and varies from court to court. It includes key decision points and filter agents, such as the criminal and clinical information a potential client provides, their preferences for participation in a mental health court, and the social process by which these recommendations are communicated within the mental health court team.
What are the benefits of participating in a mental health court?
Mental health courts are designed to divert defendants with severe mental illnesses from the criminal justice system and provide them with judicially supervised treatment and community-based services. This common-sense approach reduces recidivism, improves public safety and limits unnecessary incarceration.
A key element of the mental health court process is individualized treatment plans that balance individual treatment goals with public safety objectives. These plans are developed by a team of court staff and mental health professionals.
These plans include regular status hearings, incentives for adherence to court conditions and sanctions for noncompliance. In addition, a program may require criteria for completion and graduation from the court.
Mental health courts have been shown to be effective in reducing criminal recidivism and violence among individuals with mental illness. However, they do have some drawbacks. For example, some studies have found that participation costs can be higher than the average cost of other types of treatment. These findings have raised concerns about the impact of mental health courts on the budget.