Embracing Mental Health Courts

By: Alyssa Potts, HeLP Legal Services Clinic, Spring 2018 Intern

Mental health courts are being widely embraced in many communities in America as of late. The idea behind mental health courts is simple—instead of sending someone who is suffering from a mental illness to jail or prison for their crimes, where there is little to no possibility of their condition being properly managed and treated, the individual is offered treatment through the court where they are also offered housing and other social services. The goal of these programs is to reduce recidivism and decrease the amount of contact that people with mental illnesses have with the criminal justice system by providing them with treatment and resources to improve their social functioning where they may not be able to do so on their own. This is a win-win situation because taxpayers save money that would have been spent to house someone in jail, and the offenders with mental health issues are able to receive the support and services they need to manage their conditions and often have the chance to have their record expunged after successful completion of the mental health program. It is commonly thought that the standard punishments for criminals are ineffective when applied to the mentally ill, especially when the mental illness was the aggravating circumstance that led to the crime taking place in the first place. Inspired by other “problem-solving courts” like drug courts and community courts, mental health courts are blazing a new pathway, with over 300 mental health courts in place nationwide in less than 30 years of practice.

In most mental health courts, a team made up of judges, attorneys, parole officers, mental health experts, and social services case managers chooses who is eligible for the program and oversees their treatment until they finish. Offenders meet throughout the week for different forms of treatment, and come before the judge and the rest of the team usually once a week for evaluation. At these team meetings, not only is the offender heard from, but the team of providers as well. If at any time during the previous week the offender acted in a way not in accordance with the rules of the court, he or she will receive a sanction that is decided by the judge based on the seriousness of the offense and the number of previous sanctions received.

Mental health courts are an important way to combat prison overcrowding and, most importantly, the lack of mental health care received by people in America.  While this is not a fix to the problem or the means to an end, it is a way to temporary bandage. What we really need for this country, and for people everywhere, is better access to mental health treatment, which could stop the problem at the source before it turns into people’s illnesses going untreated and causing them to commit crimes. If the psychiatric disorders that make it difficult for a person to control their behavior are treated, then there will be a reduced crime rate and therefore a reduced incarceration rate. Most importantly, people will be healthier and happier and will be able to lead normal lives once their mental illnesses are effectively treated and managed rather than locking them in jail and throwing away the key, which only exacerbates the problem. It is important that we fight for mental health courts to continue to be implemented all around the U.S.