What Are Mental Health Courts?
One rapidly growing form of jail diversion is mental health courts, which give judges the option of sending certain offenders with mental health problems to treatment rather than jail (see cover story).
According to the 2007 U.S. Department of Justice report, Improving Responses to People with Mental Illnesses: The Essential Elements of a Mental Health Court, the number of mental health courts in this country jumped from a handful in the late 1990s to more than 150 today. Dozens more are on the way.
Modeled after drug courts, mental health courts help communities use limited resources more effectively, improve quality of life for offenders with mental illnesses, and enhance public safety.
Although details vary, these specialized court dockets typically share several characteristics:
- Voluntary nature. Participation in mental health courts is voluntary. After a specialized screening and assessment, the court may invite eligible defendants to participate in the program. Individuals are free to decline.
- Problem-solving. Instead of the procedures courts typically use with offenders, mental health courts take a problem-solving approach to select offenders who have a mental illness.
- Individualized plans. A team comprising court staff and mental health professionals creates and puts into practice individualized plans for community-based treatment.
- Monitoring. That team then supervises individuals to make sure they’re complying with the terms they’ve agreed to. The court monitors progress at regular hearings, offering rewards or sanctions depending on whether or not participants are adhering to their treatment plans and other conditions.
- Graduation. Once participants complete all of their requirements, they “graduate” from the program.
Read Improving Responses to People with Mental Illnesses: The Essential Elements of a Mental Health Court.
Improving Responses to People with Mental Illnesses: The Essential Elements of a Mental Health Court is a report prepared by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project, for the Bureau of Justice Assistance Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice. Michael Thompson, Dr. Fred Osher, and Denise Tomasini-Joshi are principal writers.
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