Academic journal article The Professional Counselor

Mental Health Counseling and Specialty Courts

Academic journal article The Professional Counselor

Mental Health Counseling and Specialty Courts

Article excerpt

In 1963, the passage of the Community Mental Health Centers Act (Feldman, 2003) led to the closing of most state psychiatric hospitals and the provision for providing services at the community level. However, the same act had the unintentional result of transferring patients with severe mental illness from psychiatric hospitals into jails and prisons (Farmer et al., 2017; Hnatow, 2015; Shenson, Dubler, & Michaels, 1990; Torrey et al., 2014). More recently, the war on drugs has exacerbated the problem of overcrowding in penal and justice systems ill-equipped to provide therapeutic services for these individuals (Hafemeister & George, 2012; Harvard Law Review, 1998; Torrey, 1997; Walsh & Holt, 1999). This predicament has led to the Cook County jail in Illinois being labeled as the country's largest mental health institution (Hill, 2016).

In order to facilitate greater efficiency and effectiveness in the justice system for the populations encountered, specialty courts act to counter a system that historically has depersonalized individuals (Kleinfeld, 2016). Specialty courts identify common issues faced by particular populations and address the underlying causes of criminogenic behavior by focusing on the individual to produce better outcomes. Although mental health professionals fulfill pivotal roles in these courts, many counselors are unfamiliar with specialty courts. The purpose of this paper is to describe the specialty court movement and the roles of counselors within it.

The Justice System-Old and New

The justice system in America has traditionally been one of punitive action-to punish offenders and deter the tempted. Since the 1950s, America's policies targeting illicit drug use have resulted in a large population of low-level offenders serving long, mandatory-minimum sentences, often with inadequate support and resulting in repeated contact with the traditional criminal justice system (Haley, 2016; Kupers, 2015).

Between 1968 and 1978, the number of patients in state mental hospitals fell 64%, while the census in state prisons rose 65% (Steadman, Monahan, Duffee, & Hartstone, 1984). In 2012, the number of prisoners diagnosed with mental illness exceeded 352,000, more than 10 times the number in state psychiatric hospitals (Torrey et al., 2014). In the absence of evidence that incarceration without treatment is in their own best interest, or that of society (Isaac & Armat, 1990; Kondrat, Rowe, & Sosinski, 2012), such prisoners are a burden on the limited resources of prison systems in every state.

The specialty court movement arose to address the specific needs of the mentally ill, drug offenders, and other populations, and to effect a decrease in the underlying causes of criminal behavior and thereby reduce the number of people incarcerated in jails and prisons. Specialty courts take the traditionally adversarial roles of prosecution and defense and turn them into cooperative roles to foster a therapeutic environment for those individuals who would benefit (Kondo, 2001). Veterans treatment courts are a more recent addition to the specialty court movement, joining mental health courts, drug courts, gun courts, domestic violence courts, and other specialized courts (Baldwin, 2016). Veterans treatment courts treat underlying causes of crime and other challenges faced by veterans and service members.

The Center for Court Innovation developed three organizing principles for specialty courts (Boldt, 2014). The first principle is a problem-solving orientation that identifies and addresses underlying causes of criminality common to specific groups; the second principle is cooperation with community resources offering treatment and oversight; and the third principle is accountability (Boldt, 2014). These principles work within the context of the two major approaches of specialty courts: therapeutic jurisprudence and restorative justice.

Two Working Approaches in Specialty Courts

The specialty court movement is based on two overarching approaches: therapeutic jurisprudence, which seeks improved outcomes for the individual facing charges; and restorative justice, which seeks restitution for all stakeholders. …

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