In San Francisco County’s Behavioral Health Court, reports the Los Angeles Times, a judge doles out weekly encouragement with occasional tough talk to keep clients engaged in comprehensive treatment. About a fourth of California’s jail and prison inmates are diagnosed with serious mental illness, says the Judicial Council’s Task Force for Criminal Justice Collaboration on Mental Health Issues. Probationers are nearly twice as likely to reoffend if they are mentally ill, the report says, and mentally ill parolees are 36 percent more likely to violate their terms of release. Given those realities, mental health courts are gaining credibility for their measureable successes.
In the normally staid courtroom, group applause rings out often, along with Judge Garrett Wong’s pervasive “Good for you!” A deputy public defender and deputy district attorney work toward the same goals in a rare convergence. Mental health caseworkers facilitate housing, vocational training, counseling and other help for as many as 140 clients. Participation is voluntary and comes in lieu of incarceration. The crime must be linked to the client’s mental illness. Success can wipe charges off the books. Those who stumble seriously or often are removed from the program and re-jailed. There are 41 collaborative mental health courts in 29 California counties, up from 21 courts four years ago. A study in the Archives of General Psychiatry this month examined San Francisco’s court and three others nationwide and found “consistent evidence” that they are good for public safety, said Hank Steadman, the study’s lead author.