In my role as a court planner, I have traveled across the country to dozens of courts to learn about trends that are impacting court workload. During the past several years, it has struck me that many courts are handling a growing number of defendants who are battling mental health issues. This emerging trend has created unique challenges for courts and court planning nationwide as they attempt to delicately balance the mission of promoting justice with the need to address underlying issues contributing to criminal behavior. Read on as we explore the challenges the criminal justice system faces in dealing with mentally ill offenders and the development of less punitive mental health courts that are designed to meet the specific needs of the offender.
Mental Health Issues: More Common Than You May Think
Historically, our society has stigmatized individuals suffering from mental health conditions, particularly those who show outward signs of their struggle. We may view mental health issues as a sign of personal weakness or lack of self-control, and have a low tolerance for behaviors that fall outside social norms. However, it may come as a surprise that a recent study showed that approximately 80% of the population will suffer from some form of a diagnosable mental health condition during the course of their lifetime. What also may come as a surprise is that mental health conditions affect all segments of the population, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, and gender. The stigma that surrounds mental health illnesses often creates a sense of shame and becomes a barrier to obtaining treatment. When mental health conditions are left untreated, it is more likely that deviant behaviors will develop and go unchecked.
Mental Health Courts: Balancing Justice and Treatment
Criminal justice professionals have long grappled with how to increase the odds of an offender’s successful return to society. This is a concern for the released offender, society at-large, and certainly for the country’s overburdened courts and prisons. The use of problem-solving courts, including mental health courts, as a means to provide offenders with treatment rather than incarceration has started to gain momentum over the past two decades. Mental health courts focus on successfully reintegrating offenders back into the community, providing an innovative alternative to the traditional adversarial court process.
This diversionary approach to criminal justice aims to rehabilitate offenders to reduce the likelihood of recidivism and to keep mentally ill offenders out of prisons and jails where their symptoms may actually be exacerbated. The data show that the use of mental health courts has moderately reduced recidivism rates and has a significant cost savings compared to incarceration.
How do Mental Health Courts Work?
Courts that provide a mental health court program identify low- to moderate-risk offenders with a diagnosable mental illness for potential participation in the program. Offenders may elect to avoid conviction and/or imprisonment by participating in this judicially supervised program. Multi-disciplinary teams are assembled to supervise and provide treatment to the offender. In addition to the judge, these teams may include prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, mental health and substance abuse counselors, and other community treatment providers. The programs offer supportive incentives and treatment options, as well as sanction alternatives if the established terms are not met. Offenders who successfully complete the program and integrate back into their communities often report that their success is partly attributable to the development of interpersonal relationships with the judge and treatment team. The positive feedback and incentives they receive for meeting goals have also proven to be effective. In short, mental health courts give offenders the tools they need to succeed, while achieving cost savings.
Mental Health Courts: A Viable Alternative?
As our nation’s jails and prisons deal with unprecedented growth in populations and alarmingly high recidivism rates, it just makes sense to explore less punitive options that get to the root of the problem. Mental health courts help break down some of the barriers that prevent people from seeking treatment. They help provide a connection between the offender and the community. They aim to keep offenders out of jail where their needs can’t be met. A viable alternative to traditional sanctions? I say yes.