Mental health courts are a resource given to prisoners who would normally be put in prison if they had not decided to join this special program. Mental health court is a court run program by the district attorney’s office in some counties. This program is based off of traditional court room structure but is also paired with community services. Mental health courts solve a lot of different problems within our criminal justice system.
The first problem it solves is the systematic problem that we have with putting seriously mentally ill offenders in prison instead of putting them in a mental hospital or going through a mental health court program to help them deal with their illness.
This gives the offenders the ability to learn how to handle their illness and stay on track to getting their life back together (Thompson, M., Osher, F., & Tomasini-Joshi, D. ,2008). People who work in the mental health court systems take the time out of their day to really take a critical look at the issues that offenders with mental illnesses face in the criminal justice system.
They help craft new ways to deal with these offenders for example with some people you need a more hands on approach in their treatment program and a soft guiding hand, but with other individuals you need to have a firmer no nonsense approach to make them realize that this is not a game but rather an opportunity to get their life back together. The mental health court really gives offenders the ability to work on major mental illnesses while working on taking care of legal issues.
This is a very important step in the criminal justice system, because many individuals only committed these crimes due to the fact that they were off their medication at the time the crime occurred (Thompson, M., Osher, F., & Tomasini-Joshi, D. 2008). Mental health courts are very similar to a drug court that you would see. Mental health courts are more of a relaxed dynamic compared to your traditional court room setting. Mental health courts typically meet once a week on a specific day and at a specific time. Before the mental health court the case worker, probation officer, judge, and many other people apart of the mental health court process meet to discuss each individual before they see them that day. They spend this time making decisions on what to do with certain individuals who aren’t complying with the terms and also how to keep encouraging everyone who is doing a great job in the program. Mental health court is defiantly more of an encouraging environment for offenders than a traditional court room setting. You have a lot of people who truly want to rehabilitate these offenders and give all their effort to do so. Mental health court is a program that is voluntary. Offenders must opt-in to mental health court to receive the treatment that he/she wants to receive. Some places give the offender the ability to observe the mental health court process while they decide if they want to participate. Although many apply for mental health court not all are accepted into this program. In order to be accepted into mental health court you have to have had an evaluation with a psychiatrist and have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Every court varies and because of the extensive amount of disorders in the DSM which as of this year is now 800 pages long not every disorder is accepted as the right diagnosis for mental health court. While I am talking about this section I am going to use York County as an example for what is expected of someone in mental health court and what diagnostic criteria you have to meet.
To be accepted into the York County mental health court you must meet the diagnostic criteria which means you must be diagnosed with a major Axis I diagnosis, which includes disorders like Bipolar Disorders, Major Depressive Disorders, and Schizophrenia. PTSD is usually only excepted when you are a veteran and then you would not go into the mental health court but into the veteran’s court that they offer. Other disorders besides these can sometimes be acceptable but they have to come with substantial evidence that it impaired their judgment. At York County an exclusion from the mental health court would be if you had any previous charges they are not resolved in other states. Not every charge is allowed to enter into mental health court some examples of that are murder, any sexual charge, any violent offense (example aggravated assault), and anyone who is classified as a violent offender. Although these crimes are excluded under the conditions under certain circumstances they might allow one of these charges to enter into mental health court. Along with a list of certain circumstances to get into mental health court York County also provides a list of prohibited medications in the treatment court so people are aware of the rules before entering. The mental health court at York County has three phases for the offenders and has listed what is expected of them and what the possible sanctions if they do not follow what is required of them (York county mental health court manual, May, 2005). I stated earlier how most mental health court programs are for a yearlong and can change depending on what happens with the offender and the treatment courts position. From being able to have the opportunity to work and observe the mental health court process I learned a lot. York Counties mental health court is not like most according to the research that I found. The treatment court there is mandatory for everyone to attend for 18 months which is why there are the three phases of this program. I think that 18 months is a great reasonable time for someone to complete this program and truly get everything they need out of it. Before you enter York Counties program besides the mental diagnosis you also need to plead guilty to all the charges that have been brought up on you. It is very important for the offender before entering the program to recognize what they did was wrong and that they need to own up to what they have done.
The offender has to sign many papers including the contractual agreement saying that they are committing to program for the designated 18 months and they will comply with the entire requirements or face the sanctions that are listed in the manual. Towards the end of completion offender visits become less at York County and then if they are cleared they do not have to come back till graduation day. York County took graduation very seriously because it gave the offenders a sense of accomplishment and sometimes for some of them it was the only time in their lives that they had finally finished something. I was lucky enough while interning there that I was able to go through the end part of the mental health court journey with some people and see them graduate. Overall I feel like York County likes to give an approach of a soft but firm stand point in the treatment court. Everyone who worked there was dedicated to helping the offenders live a mentally better life and stay on track after they graduate (York county mental health court manual, May, 2005). The plea structure of mental health court is very different than the typical plea agreements you see in a regular court system. When you are accepted into mental health court the prosecuting attorney will then proceed to freeze the charges that you are currently charged with. If you have been charged with a felony typically if you complete the mental health court and do everything you were supposed to do the felony will be reduced into a misdemeanor. If you have been charged with a misdemeanor they the charges against you after successful completion will then be dropped from your record (The Proliferation of Mental Health Courts). Mental health courts like I had stated earlier do not typically take violent offenders or certain charges and this is why mental health court is sometimes longer than the actual time they would have served for just the crime. The treatment time in mental health court is usually around a year although it can be extended for a period of two years. The court has the right to extend the treatment of the offender if they deem it to be something that is absolutely necessary for them to do in order for the offender to have the opportunity to fully get what they need out of the program. Like I had stated earlier they are required to attend mental health court often and one of the reasons for this is so the judge can monitor them along with the other court personal.
Along with attending mental health court they are required to attend all other programs and meet with their probation officer on a consistent basis in order to be in compliance with terms of the treatment court. Overall if they attend what they are supposed to over time the amount of attending the treatment court will lessen towards the end of their treatment. The amount of time that the offender spends in treatment court should not go over the maximum time they would have spent in prison or on probation for their crime (Thompson, M., Osher, F., & Tomasini-Joshi, D. 2008). Mental health courts often reach out to other resources in the community to give the offenders the ability to continue on their path to recovery after the treatment court ends. They provide resources like counseling services after, group meetings to keep them on track, and job placement to keep them an active and productive member of society. All of these resources give the offenders the ability to keep on track and give a smoother transition back into the community. I think that this is almost if not more important than the treatment court itself. So many times we see that these offenders end up recidivating because they are put back in the same situations that they were in before without any resources to keep them on track. Community resources are a really good thing that the courts do and hopefully continue to do in the future with these courts (The Proliferation of Mental Health Courts). The short term goals of mental health court would be to help offenders get into treatment for their mental illness and reduce the amount of people that we currently have incarcerated. Usually each mental health court has its own set of goals specifically designed for them but they usually fall into basically the same thing. Some of the long term goals for mental health courts is to increase the public safety by hopefully reducing the crime and recidivism rate with the offenders, to encourage treatment among the mental ill community within the criminal justice system, lessening the cost on the community by using the corrections institutions, and overall improving the quality of life for the population of mentally ill people in the criminal justice system (Mental health courts a primer for policy makers and practitioners, 2008). Mental health courts have many benefits to the community and the criminal justice system. Overall in most areas they have been decently successful. Down at York County District Attorney’s Office with my experience in mental health court many people completed the program, but sometimes it really depended on the drive the own individual had to really change their life and turn it around.
They contribute to the cases moving faster through the criminal justice system, help the communication between the criminal justice community and mental health communities, and help the offenders with true mental illnesses learn how to deal with them. Mental health courts have had good support from the community and funding which makes this program possible. I do believe that these courts are a great asset to the criminal justice system and help the community with mental illness. So many of the state hospitals in Pennsylvania have closed it has created a large amount of the prison population with mental illnesses not receiving the proper treatment for their disorders. I believe that mental health courts are a great way to reduce the prison population and give people who truly need those resources the opportunity to get them. Each and every county is working hard to serve the offenders the best they can in this court. The idea of treatment court has room for a tremendous amount of growth and I only see it becoming an even better system in the future of our criminal justice system. In conclusion from the research that I conducted I found that mental health courts that took a softer approach on their offenders and led them the right way with a gentle hand were more successful. Building relationships with the offenders during this process is just as important as them following through with the proper treatments. Holding them accountable and guiding them are two of the most important components from what I observed. Like I had stated earlier mental health courts have a bright future in our criminal system and seem to do more good for society than harm.