Mental Health Courts Try to Impose Order on “The Most Disordered of Minds”


The Washington Post profiles a mental health court in nearby Upper Marlboro, Md., one of a growing number across the U S. More than half of U.S. jail and prison inmates — more than 1.2 million people — reported symptoms of mental illness, said a 2006 federal study. That number had quadrupled since 1998, and other studies suggest that the number has continued to rise in recent years. About 300 jurisdictions have set up specialized dockets for judges who impose mental health treatment on some of society's most troubled residents. They are charged with assault, theft, arson, trespassing, harassment, stalking, and other crimes short of homicide. Their mental illness is often part of a tapestry of problems that might include drug addiction or other issues that increase their risk of violence.

The courts operate in different ways from state to state. The one in Upper Marlboro handles only misdemeanor cases. Defendants must agree to participate, and after that, the judge can make mental health treatment a condition of pretrial release or probation. The goal is to restore healthier, more stable people to a community that is ultimately safer for the time, tax dollars and energy spent. The reality is that challenges are inherent in trying to impose the order of the judicial system on the most disordered of minds — in asking someone with a serious mental illness to handle court dates, therapy appointments, medication, and other logistics of a decentralized and often inadequate mental-health-care system. As Judge Patrice Lewis of Prince George’s County, Md., said one day after a particularly difficult session: “Sometimes I don't know who can solve all of these problems. Maybe no one can.”

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