Mental Health Courts: A Promising Alternative to the Current Insanity of Our Criminal Justice System

After our discussion on Tuesday, I decided to look for empirical studies that demonstrated the significant judicial problem in this country of placing mentally ill offenders into prisons rather than treatment.  Of course a major factor in this issue is the fact that deinstitutionalization without subsequent community support has left many people in desperate need of help homeless.  However as Effect of Mental Health Courts on Arrests and Jail Days: A Multisite Study article demonstrates, a potential solution (or more likely one component of a multi-faceted solution) to this problem may in fact rest in the legal system itself.

I had no idea before reading this article that a separate system is beginning to develop for “criminals” with a serious mental illness.  These so called Mental Health Courts are still young, with only 250 nationwide and the results of early studies like this one will most likely determine whether they are phased out, or grow into a veritable legal institution.  These post-booking institutions require a plea of guilty before a judge, but instead of directly incarcerating people, defendants are placed under the supervision of the court, which in turns provides treatment and community placement and referrals over the long term, meaning that once you enter the system they keep track of you until you “graduate” ensuring that legitimate rehabilitation has taken place.  The basic idea resembles my half-baked idea for structuring the legal system in such a way as to tailor specific rehabilitation practices to specific populations rather than just punishing everyone, which makes me really excited about becoming a lawyer and hopefully being a part of developing these types of programs.

One of the problems with these courts is that they have very idiosyncratic individual methods for enacting these procedures making their effectiveness difficult to study, but in a way, as long as these differences are systematically classified and studies, this variance will eventually lead to the most effective model; one proven through trial and data rather than one pushed upon society via the purely theoretical arguments of public figures or the compromises of competing bureaucracies as is so often the case (i.e. education and deinstitutionalization).

This article is particularly well done in that the authors take great care to reduce any limitations in their methodology, and acknowledge when they are unable to do so.  I am happy to say that the results were promising in that in all four cases, offenders who went through mental health courts spent less time in jail and were less likely to be rearrested 18 months after the initial arrest.  Here’s to hoping real reform is actually coming!

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