Alternative courts are not a comprehensive reform of the mental illness crisis.

 Alternative courts are not a comprehensive reform of the mental illness crisis.

Alternative courts are not a comprehensive reform of the mental illness crisis.

 Alternative courts are not a comprehensive reform of the mental illness crisis.



The number of mental health courts in the United States has steadily increased over the past 20 years, but judges and human rights defenders say states should not rely solely on these courts to end the imprisonment of people with mental illnesses.


Today, there are more than 450 adult mental health courts in 45 states across the United States, according to the GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation of the Department of Mental Health and Drug Abuse Services. In January, Nebraska began the first mental health court in Sarby County, becoming the 46th state to offer a court program to solve problems.


Mental health courts are defined as special records courts to deal with charges involving defendants diagnosed with mental illness and allowing these individuals to participate in health treatment rather than being sentenced to prison, according to a report by the Council of State Governments. The Center for Justice, a non-profit organization that conducts research on how to improve criminal justice.


While organizations such as csg justice center provide states with articles on best practices for mental health courts, there is no universal model for these courts and some models implemented by states are better than others.


Some of the differences between mental health courts are the level of crimes they deal with, qualified mental illness, treatment options provided, the duration of the program, whether charges will be  to participate in the program, according to the CSG Justice Center.


Justice Joyce Campbell, chairwoman of the Ohio Supreme Court Committee, said law360 in her specialized memoirs that include mental health and the drug court, that her court only deals with misdemeanor cases including individuals with diagnosable mental illness such as bipolar disorder, severe depression or schizophrenia.


At Judge Campbell's court, participants met at the Mental Health Court for nearly two years while completing the court's four-stage program. During that time, Judge Campbell ensures that participants receive their medications and receive treatment and accommodation.


According to Judge Campbell, the operation of mental health courts is not more expensive, but it requires a lot of work and dedication to work without overtime.


"[courts] should only access the resources available in their community and bring them all together,"


The data also show that mental health courts reduce recidivism, which means that participants with mental illness are not frequently imprisoned and transported in and out of prisons and prisons. According to the 2017 meta-analysis of 17 studies published by psychiatric services in advance, mental health courts reduce recidivism by 20%.


However, some judges and advocates say that people who commit low-level crimes and have mental health problems should be identified and directed to mental health services without being arrested and liquidated through the court system at all. According to studies, the majority of arrests for people suffering from mental illness are for non-violent misdemeanours such as embarrassment, loitering or general disorder.


Debbie Plutnik, vice president of mental health and advocacy systems at the American Mental Health Organization, said that ideally, people with a mental health crisis would be immediately directed to crisis centers by law enforcement officers or mental health professionals who work with officers known as participating responders.


"Law enforcement needs to understand that people with a health crisis who call 911 don't commit crimes," Plutnik said.


But many states and counties do not have crisis centers and employ law enforcement officers without mental health training as first responders to mental health crisis calls. Without specialized training, officers often don't know how to mitigate situations involving a person who may be obsessed, hallucinating or paranoid, according to Plutnik.


The result of these situations can lead to individuals resisting arrest or unintentional assault on officers, offences that result in more severe penalties than nonviolent misdemeanours. In the worst-case scenario, people with mental illnesses can be infected or killed in these confrontations with law enforcement authorities.


The courts are therefore left in a dilemma where they either help people with mental illness and are arrested, even if it is better for the courts not to have to deal with these matters, or to house these individuals in prisons or prisons where they are unlikely to get them. Appropriate treatment and their mental health will worsen and they are likely to be arrested again after their release.


Michael Dogerty, the district attorney in Boulder County, Colorado, said the courts should offer defendants mental health treatment as an alternative to a criminal penalty to meet the mental health needs of individuals.


"Without the treatment available in the justice system, we fail to recognize the trauma and behavioral health needs that people suffer from, and as a result, we do not address the roots of the problem that brought them into the justice system," Dogerty said.


Mental health courts, formed along the lines of drug courts, came into existence in the 1990s in response to the growing number of mentally ill people entering the criminal justice system as a result of the closure of public mental health hospitals nationwide, according to the Crime Act and the Institute for Justice Research, a non-profit research organization.

Some human rights defenders argue that mental health courts can be unfair if there is a looming threat of imprisonment if they relapse while participating in the court's programme. These defenders say it is unfair to punish people who struggle to overcome their mental illness.

According to Mental Health America, mental health courts must not be restricted or coercive. According to the organization, mental health courts should not ask defendants to plead guilty to charges of participating in treatment, nor should they be imprisoned for non-compliance with treatment.

"Participants in the Mental Health Court are sometimes told that charges will be dropped if they do what they are asked to do for mental health treatment, but mental health courts and their participants must work together to develop the best treatment plan," Plutnik said.

Dogerty said that while he believes that more jurisdictions should have mental health courts, communities need to develop other mental health services. He said that if communities become heavily dependent on the courts as a way to treat mental health, families sometimes encourage relatives to commit crimes so they can get treatment, which could burden mental health courts with more cases.

"I strongly advocate more community treatment for those with mental health needs, because there are a lot of people with mental illness and families watching them and trying to support them during those struggles but they don't have access to Dogtieri said.

Plutnik said she hopes that the federal government's designation of 988 as the national mental health crisis hotline number will reduce the number of cases that end up in mental health courts.

Last year, Congress passed the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020, which requires the FCC to designate 988 as the national mental health hotline number. The law provides for state funding to prepare the problem needed to redirect all 988 calls to the current national suicide prevention line, in accordance with the law.

"Mental illness must be treated as a health condition, and now our criminal justice system does not treat mental illness at every step as a health condition," Plutnik said.

But there will always be a few cases that the courts have to deal with which involve individuals with severe mental illness can be very violent because they are not receiving the treatment they need, according to Judge Campbell.