The Harris County Felony Mental Health Court developed in Houston Texas, America’s third largest city, remains in the planning stages. Speaking with Mary Lou Brncik of David’s Hope, a non-profit organization in Phoenix Arizona, about this concept, it is her hope that Arizona legislators would help and participate in legislation that would decrease the incarceration of the mentally ill in AZ prisons and model what is being done in Texas, Harris County where plans are being made to set up and use this concept of reducing the numbers of those who are seriously mentally ill (SMI).
Reading the executive summary of the MacArthur Foundation Justice Center report labeled Mental Health Courts; it reads “In recent years, the large number of individuals with mental illnesses involved in the criminal justice system has become a pressing policy issue within both the criminal justice and mental health systems. The prevalence of serious mental illnesses among all people entering jails, for example, is estimated to be 16.9 percent (14.5 percent of men and 31 percent of women).1 People with mental illnesses often cycle repeatedly through courtrooms, jails, and prisons that are ill-equipped to address their needs and, in particular, to provide adequate treatment. Over the past decade or so, policymakers and practitioners have been exploring new ways of responding to these individuals to break this costly and damaging cycle and to otherwise improve outcomes for the systems and individuals involved. One of the most popular responses to emerge has been the mental health court, which combines court supervision with community- based treatment services, usually in lieu of a jail or prison sentence. Mental health courts generally share the following goals: to improve public safety by reducing criminal recidivism; to improve the quality of life of people with mental illnesses and increase their participation in effective treatment; and to reduce court- and corrections-related costs through administrative efficiencies and often by providing an alternative to incarceration.”
Their outline and design is easy to follow as it lays out a comprehensive plan to organize efforts to implement such a tool for communities to reduce the incarceration of SMI offenders. It is the hope that Arizona legislators will support this concept to accept SMI offenders charged with serious criminal offenses that include both misdemeanor and felonies and in some cases, violent crimes. Targeted for those SMI offenders with repeat or serious mental illnesses, it also includes substance abuse disorders. The Mental Health court would be created by a panel of a judge, a representative of the district attorney’s office, probation officers and case managers or representatives from the mental health care team or providers. All cases would be treated by referrals and the court would create incentives and sanctions suited best for the situation and circumstances in a case by case basis. Referrals can be delivered through a broad channel of interested parties that include defense attorneys, family members and jail officials [including mental health administrators]. The objective of each case is to provide motivation for the SMI offender to engage or complete treatment and compliance with the terms of participation that includes programming and medication compliance.
A desired outcome from this specialized action involving the SMI is to lower the recidivism rates of both prisons and jails; fewer arrests for new crimes and successful probation and release from supervision. The participants would be recipients of a more effective courtroom milieu that specializes in treatment and services solely focused to allow the participant to gain self-control over the behavior and reduced spending of public funding associated with jail and court costs as well as the costly inpatient care treatment option that drains social supports systems quickly and are often underfunded to begin with.
To summarize the goal of the Mental Health Court is to produce positive living skills and compliance with both social behaviors and the criminal statutes in place to protect the public and as well as themselves. These positive living skills that ensures coping skills and functionality within our communities will save significant costs incurred if the SMI were to go to prison. Policy makers and mental health provides [practitioners] should embrace this design and conceptual thinking as an alternative to making courts more effective for the SMI and reducing the prison population which is already flooded with SMI offenders since the deinstitutionalization of state hospitals and offering limited bed space in the communities for treatment and supervision purposes. The MacArthur Foundation states in its report “Mental health courts are one of many court-based responses designed to improve outcomes for people with mental illnesses who are involved in the criminal justice system. Despite the popularity of these courts, researchers have only begun to study their processes and outcomes. This guide has attempted to capture conclusions that can be drawn from the existing body of research at the time of this writing. No two mental health courts are exactly alike. Each is shaped by the target population, jurisdictional constraints, available treatment services, and other community factors. Yet these courts have several essential characteristics in common, including the court team’s general composition and the process through which someone is referred to the program and connected with treatment services.”