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What Are Mental Health Courts?

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  • Written By: T. Carrier
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 01 October 2014
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Mental health courts are one group of several court system types that focus on offenders in a particular population. In particular, mental health courts are designed for criminal offenders who have a demonstrated mental health disorder. This method of justice features specially trained employees and rehabilitative treatment programs.

Mental health courts represent an emerging trend in criminal law: problem-solving courts. Such specialized courts target particular social ills within a population — other examples include domestic violence courts and drug courts. The approach seeks reformation rather than retribution. Rehabilitation of offenders is a key goal, with the idea that a reformed offender can offer a positive contribution to society. Consideration of crime victims is also crucial.

As for legislative support, in the United States both the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act of 2004 and America’s Law Enforcement and Mental Health Project provide a legal foundation for mental health courts. The Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration partner to coordinate United States mental health court services. Legal basis may vary in other countries.

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Specifics differ by region, but several factors generally constitute mental health courts. The basis of these programs combines the most successful features of jail diversion programs, parole and probation guidelines, and Crisis Intervention Teams found in communities. Specialized treatment programs are designed for the offender’s unique needs. These treatments are supervised and enforced by individuals with training in mental health issues, from judges to case workers.

A general process usually begins with a screening of the offender. Courts typically establish a criteria standard for what types of mental health issues and alleged crimes will be considered by the court. Once a potential candidate is selected, the offender must voluntarily agree to undergo treatment. After a length of treatment is determined, the offender must strictly adhere to the program’s requirements or face sanctions. Treatments are administered through a comprehensive partnership between judges and other law enforcement officials and community health professionals.

The legacy of mental health courts began in the United States in the 1980s with an Indiana judge named Evan Dee Goodman. The judicial official established a court that would focus on issues pertaining to mental health at Wishard Memorial Hospital. Inpatient and outpatient treatment served as a foundation for the court. Goodman’s colleagues became inspired by the idea, and mental health courts began to spread across the United States and to other countries as well. One constant is that all employees of a mental health court remain active in screening, assessing, and treating offenders.

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