How Mental Health Courts Offer Treatment-Based Alternatives to Jail


Judges point to the growing number of mental health courts that that offer mentally ill criminal defendants treatment-based alternatives to jail as a success story, reports the National Law Journal. (The full article is available only to subscribers). An offshoot of the popular drug courts, mental health courts were the product of judges, prison officials, lawyers, and mental health advocates frustrated with the lack of options for mentally ill defendants. The courts’ goal is to halt the cycle of arrest and incarceration and put mentally ill people on a path to stability. Judges say defendants who get the treatment and support they need are less likely to re-offend, as is the case with drug courts. Court watchers estimate that there are 300 mental health courts in the U.S.; by comparison, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, there are more than 2,700 drug courts.

Ira Burnim of the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington warned that although mental health courts are “an understandable response to a symptom,” they can create incentives for individuals in need of care to get arrested. Mental health services providers, not judicial officers, should be managing care, he said. The Brooklyn, N.Y., Mental Health Court is one of the few to accept violent offenders. Participants plead guilty and know that jail time is on the table if they fail to finish. Presiding Judge Matthew D’Emic tries to strike a balance between public safety and supporting defendants’ needs. “It creates kind of a community in the courtroom and it eliminates some kind of stigma, because they all know why they’re there,” he said. The District of Columbia Superior Court mental health court doesn’t require guilty pleas in most cases and instead offers to dismiss charges if defendants complete the program. “There’s the motivation of having your case dismissed,” said Presiding Judge Ann O’Regan Keary. “It’s a really wonderful attraction.”

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