Mental Health Courts: An Emerging Solution

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Mental Health Courts: An Emerging Solution

Post  Yoke on Wed Apr 15, 2009 9:00 am

Court systems in several states across the U.S. are showing significant signs of improvement in the way they treat people with mental illness. Over the last few decades, we have simply warehoused our mentally ill - more than 555,000 people with mental illness live in our prisons and jails today, while fewer than 10% of that number are being treated in hospitals and health facilities. Mental health courts are changing that - and the recession is spurring even more change, because enabling a person to live independently is much cheaper than holding them in a cell.

From a Denver Post article

The defendants in Courtroom 151P couldn't look more different: Men and women, old and young. Black, white and brown skin creased by wrinkles or adorned with tattoos.

But they share an invisible trait — mental illness — that often sends them careening smack into a city ordinance. Then they ricochet, again and again, into jail. Or detox. Or the emergency room.

Now, following more than 250 examples nationwide and several in Colorado, Denver is beginning to see progress more than halfway through a three-year program that seeks to put select nonviolent, mentally ill offenders into treatment instead of behind bars.

The Council of State Governments coordinates the Consensus Project to help enable mental health courts around the country and to provide treatment options for the mentally ill to avoid entanglements with a criminal justice system that doesn't know how to handle the nuances and difficulties of varied mental illnesses. And the Department of Justice administers grants for state and local governments to develop mental health courts on their own.

This trend, mirroring drug courts, is helping to shape the American criminal justice system of the 21st century - one that individualized sentences and rehabilitation, one that treats humans as humans, and one that avoids wasting millions of lives and billions of dollars.

For a heart-wrenching look at mental illness in prison, check out this moving photo/video/essay from Jenn Ackerman -

Trapped: Mental Illness in America's Prisons.

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