The Jury Is Still out on Mental Health Courts. (Treatment without Jail Time)

Article excerpt

Ms. Jones, a teacher and mother of two, was close to completing a PhD when her mental health deteriorated. Over the next 5 years, she incurred various stalking, assault, and trespassing charges until she found herself in a mental health court in King County, Wash. There, she accepted a plea agreement enabling her to receive treatment in place of jail time.

Thanks, in part, to King County's success, mental health courts are gaining popularity as a strategy to curb the growing population of mentally ill individuals in prisons. But some experts want to put the brakes on the movement.

"I fear that communities and elected officials perceive mental health courts as quick fixes," said Hank Steadman, president of Policy Research Associates Inc., a mental health think tank in Delmar, N.Y. "A lot of communities don't recognize that mental health courts are only as good as the community-based services available."

Mental health courts, which combine the judicial process with therapeutic intervention, are designed to offer mentally ill offenders a chance to receive treatment without incarceration. The concept, also known as "therapeutic jurisprudence," is the same as that behind drug courts.

The first mental health court was established in Broward County, Fla., in 1997. The concept was born out of a task force made up of public officials, law enforcement officials, and providers created to address the issues of jail overcrowding and inadequate treatment of mentally ill offenders.

In late 2000, former President Bill Clinton signed legislation authorizing federal funding of 100 mental health courts nationwide. A year later, the program received appropriations. Recently, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice, began working with the Center for Mental Health Services of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to discuss administration of the earmarked $4 million.

No single model exists for mental health courts, which currently number between 20 and 25 nationwide, said John Petrila, J.D., chair of mental health law and policy at the Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida, Tampa. The exact number is unclear; although drug courts are tracked, no one keeps track of mental health courts.

Typically, only nonviolent offenders with misdemeanor charges and diagnosed mental illness are eligible to participate. The length of treatment mandated varies but ranges from 1 year to 5 years. The method of monitoring treatment also varies. Generally, an officer of the court oversees the execution of the treatment plan and collaborates with the case manager.

Mental health courts attempt to give mentally ill offenders a voice in court, Mr. …