It is vital for courts to fully explore alternatives to incarceration, including diverting people with mental illness to community services where they can find the treatment and support they have been lacking.
In recent years, the law enforcement community has expressed growing concern about incarcerating people with mental illnesses, instead of correcting the real problems: unmet mental health needs, a lack of stable housing and difficulty in accessing basic human services. This has led a number of communities to establish specialized courts to process criminal cases involving people with mental illnesses. These specialty courts -- often called mental health courts -- attempt to connect individuals to treatment, housing, and other services that help them remain in the community without re-offending. Mental health courts are a late-stage intervention for people who are needlessly placed at risk of contact with criminal justice systems.
The Bazelon Center believes the best approach to avoiding the criminalization of people with mental illnesses is not to create more courts, but to ensure timely access to the services and supports that are crucial to people with serious mental illness. Mental health courts may provide immediate relief to criminal justice institutions already full to the brim, but alone they cannot solve the systemic problems that cause people with mental illnesses to be arrested and incarcerated in disproportionate numbers. These courts also present some unintended negative consequences. For instance, because mental health courts can leverage access to needed community services, they can inadvertently create incentives to arrest people to get them into services. Because of this and other potential problems, mental health courts should be used, if at all, with great caution, only when defendants face significant jail or prison sentences, and only as an interim measure as a part of a broad reform of public systems within the community.
Specialty mental health courts, when used on a limited basis for more serious offenses, can play a productive role in a more expansive strategy to break the cycle of limited services, worsening mental illness, and resulting incarceration.
Also see The Role of Mental Health Courts in System Reform and The Role of Specialty Mental Health Courts in Meeting the Needs of Juvenile Offenders.