Similar to drug courts, mental health courts work to place severely depressed, paranoid, and delusional people into treatment instead of behind bars, the Associated Press reports. As the courts have expanded nationwide from only a handful a decade ago to more than 250, experts and policymakers are divided on whether they are the most appropriate way to manage mentally ill people who land in trouble with the law.
Some mental health advocates fear the courts lead to greater criminalization and stigma for the mentally ill. They are opposed to the courts’ using criminal sanctions to coerce treatment or that criminal offenders can jump the line to get community-based treatment before others. “Despite good intentions, the mental health courts don’t address the root problem, which is getting services to people before crisis hits,” said Andrew Penn of the Washington, D.C.-based Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. “You shouldn’t have to wait until you wind up in court to get those services.”