Brooklyn’s mental-health court has become a model for places trying to deal with a seemingly intractable problem: the increasing number of mentally ill people filling prisons, reports the Wall Street Journal. The problem stems largely from the shuttering of state mental-health facilities a generation ago. Once behind bars, the mentally ill are rarely paroled. If released, they usually end up back in prison because of a lack of treatment. About 330,000 of the nation’s 2.2 million inmates are mentally ill.
Mental-health courts, which work with prosecutors, are emerging as a promising alternative. They came on the scene in the late 1990s and are designed to allow the mentally ill to avoid prison time, provided they adhere to extensive treatment plans monitored by the courts. Defendants must plead guilty and pass psychiatric evaluations before being admitted. Under the court’s authority, they undergo regular therapy sessions and often their medication is monitored. Prosecutors and judges typically have complete discretion as to whether a defendant can seek this alternative path. The idea represents a middle ground between locking up the mentally ill and letting them roam free. “I got tired of reading about the poor soul who pushes another poor soul off the subway platform onto the tracks,” says Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who helped create the mental health court.