What are mental health courts?

Congress empowered the Bureau of Justice Assistance, in coordination with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), to establish the Mental Health Courts Program. This program seeks to implement collaborative efforts that bring improvements to the treatment of criminal offenders with mental disabilities or illnesses. This involves a partnership between judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to deal with nonviolent offenders who have been diagnosed with a mental illness or co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorder. The goal of these courts is to provide courts with resources to improve social functioning of clients with disabilities by offering treatment as an alternative to the prison system.

Why are they important?

In federal prisons, 60% of women and 44% of men have at least one mental health problem. The situation is worse in state prisons where 73% of women and 55% of men suffer from mental health related issues. In local jails, the numbers increase to 75% of women and 63% of men. Prisons and jails often operate as de facto mental health institutions, and people with serious mental illness are far more likely to be incarcerated than to receive medical treatment from hospitals.

How does iustitia advocate and educate on this issue?

iustitia advocates for the implementation and use of mental health courts that provide realistic and obtainable treatment goals for offenders with mental health problems as well as more comprehensive participation guidelines and appropriate staffing by independent mental health professionals.

The justice system needs to implement new strategies to handle offenders who have mental health problems, as the current practice of criminalization is not working. Mental health courts could provide individuals with a route to obtain help. However, these courts need to have the proper checks and balances to ensure fair and responsible treatment of all individuals.

Recent Developments:

  • An increasing number of states and counties have implemented mental health courts in their judicial makeup to combat the growing number of incarcerated individuals with mental health problems.
  • June 2016: A one-year mental health court demonstration project will launch soon in Scott County, thanks to a $50,000 grant.
  • June 2016: The Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office is addressing mental health in the county with the creation of a Mental Health Treatment Court to offer intervention for those who suffer from chronic mental health issues that end up in the court system and to reduce recidivism rates.

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