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Mental Health Courts


Over the past three decades, there has been an increasing need for the criminal justice system to effectively solve the numerous problems faced by offenders within it. For example, there have been calls for the criminal justice system to reduce drug abuse among inmates, racial discrimination within the correctional systems and relapse of offenders after completion of probation. Today, the criminal justice system is faced with the problem of helping mentally ill defenders overcome the challenges they face within the system. As a consequence, the mental health courts have been established to help persons who are mentally ill and cannot undergo probation under normal conditions. For example, Slate and Johnson assert that mental health courts have been established to shield individuals with mental illnesses from disproportional and inappropriate arrests. Levine and Levine also affirm that mental health courts seek to address challenges caused by the increasing number of mentally ill persons who join the criminal justice system. Although the creation of mental health courts initially received strong oppositions and criticisms, the courts have been developed in numerous jurisdictions in the United States of America.

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Mental Health Courts

The Oregon Judicial Department defines a mental health court as a criminal court program designed for individuals who would struggle with accomplishing probation obligations because of a mental health condition. Most mental health courts are treatment programs that consist of two to five phases that last a minimum of one year, and may last longer depending on the progress of the participant. In mental health courts, the conditions of probation or treatment are customized to meet the individual needs of each participant. Individuals who successfully complete all the programs of a mental health court usually graduate from the programs. The probation is often terminated after successful completion. However, some individuals may continue with probation and treatment outside the mental health courts after successfully completing the programs. It depends on the individual needs of each participant. According to Slate and Johnson, mental health courts target people who are on probation and have no pending criminal cases to resolve. Most participants are also required not to have a history criminal violence.

Participants of mental health courts are referred to these institutions by Mental Health Court Probation Officers who interview the individuals and submit recommendations to the District Attorney Officers who would review the criminal history of the individuals to determine whether they are suitable for the mental health court programs. According to Hughes and Peak, defendants who are on probation can be referred for admission into mental health courts by an attorney, a friend, close family member, law enforcement officer or any other interested party. An agreement to adhere to the rules, policies and conditions of a mental health court is a legal requirement that must be fulfilled by all participants before admission into mental health court programs.

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History of Mental Health Courts

The establishment of mental health courts in the United States of America dates back to early 1980s when an American Judge Evan Dee Goodman assisted in the founding of an exclusive court to deal with cases involving mentally ill suspects. The court was located at Wishard Memorial hospital in Indianapolis. The court dealt with minor offenders who were mentally ill as well as other offenders who needed psychiatric treatment while on trial. Previously, mentally ill suspects faced inappropriate arrest and charges because people who treated them sought assistance from the state to enable them provide long-term psychiatric care for the suspects. The probate section of the courts was to handle issues related to the search for assistance from the state through a process called civil commitment whereas the arrest charges would be handled by the criminal docket. As a consequence, most charges involving mentally ill persons would be put on hold for longer periods. The patient would be released from prison and be allowed to receive treatment from a state hospital. Judge Evan Goodman would have periodic hearings to get updates about the progress of the patient at specified time intervals. If enough logical reason presents itself, the criminal charges against the patient would be dropped, but the patient would be obliged with regards to the civil commitment.

Although the original concept of mental health courts established by Judge Goodman ceased in the early 1990s, a group of representatives of mental health service providers in Indianapolis begun to push for reestablishment of mental health courts in the mid 1990s. The group was named the Psychiatric Assertive Identification and Referral (PAIR) and it formally begun operations in 1996. This group comprised of close associates of Judge Evan Goodman.

According to Schneider, Bloom and Heerema, the first mental health court to receive legal recognition was the Broward County Mental Health Court which was established in 1997. The establishment of the court is directly attributed to the work of the PAIR group. A few years later, other mental health courts were established across the United States of America. Since the year 2000, the number of mental health courts has progressively increased. Today, there are approximately one hundred and fifty mental health courts in various states in the U.S., and plans are underway to establish more mental health courts in the country.

Functions of Mental Health Courts

The main function of mental health courts is to connect mentally ill offenders, who normally would be jailed, to community-based treatments. Hughes and Peak also affirm that the sole role of mental health courts is to help mentally ill defendants gain adequate access to health care resources. These courts rely on outcomes of assessments conducted to establish the mental health condition of the individuals. Defendants who have been chosen for admission to mental health court programs usually receive comprehensive assessments to ascertain their suitability, treatment needs and personal interest in joining the programs. Mental health courts also rely on the individual treatment plan of the person as well as judicial monitoring. According to Hughes and Peak, judicial monitoring attempts to gauge the public safety against the needs of the offenders with regards to their mental health conditions. In addition, mental health courts also aim at reducing self harm by limiting the amount of time participants spend in jail and in the state hospitals. They also engage participants in positive life activities such as school and work hence strive to improve their living standards and productivity in the society. According to Schneider, Bloom and Heerema, mental health courts also strive to encourage participants to support the community by paying restitution to victims and completing community services.

Criticisms of Mental Health Courts

Opinions are divided on the importance and relevance of mental health courts in the society. Opponents of mental health courts argue that the establishment of these courts is not necessary because the services they provide can be offered by rehabilitation and probation centers. Mental health courts have also been criticized for increasing instead of lessening the participation of the mentally ill persons in the criminal justice system. Those opposing the courts argue that this is the case with mental health courts that concentrate on misdemeanor offenders. According to views of the opponents, misdemeanor offenders should receive probation and short jail terms rather than undergoing programs of the mental health courts. It has also been argued that most mental health courts compel and coerce individuals into treatment programs, for instance, by forcing the defendants to plead guilty before going to the mental health courts. Similar, mental health courts have been censured and scorned for violation of the human rights of participants through infringement of right to privacy and confidentiality of personal information during their treatment programs. The increase in number of mental health courts has also been associated with inability of the federal and state governments to fund the health care system sufficiently. Thus, the courts are used as scapegoats for low funding and inability of the health care system to handle mentally ill offenders. Last but not least, mental health courts have also been blamed for fuelling arrests in the society because individuals must be arrested first before they could receive help from the courts.


Mental health courts operate like other courts such as drug courts that are set up to help solve social problems. Thus, the main aim of mental health courts is to tackle social vices in relation to criminal justice. Mental health courts also use techniques such as crisis intervention teams and collaborative initiatives to help overcome social problems in the society. Their main targets are individuals with mental health conditions charged with criminal offences. Mental health courts usually have treatment programs tailored to the individual needs of each participant, for instance, participants would also undergo treatments for drug and alcohol abuse if they are drug addicts. Criminal offenders who adhere to the requirements of programs of mental health courts usually have their cases dismissed, or sentences reduced. In contrast, individuals who fail to adhere with the conditions of the programs face the normal criminal proceedings.

For my part, I would recommend that additional researches should be conducted to establish the relevance of mental health courts in the society and how they complement criminal justice and health care systems in providing services to the people rather than criticizing them.

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