The first mental health court was established about 20 years ago in Broward County, Florida, in 1997. Since that time, a relatively small number of counties across the country have established these innovative and forward-thinking programs, with the result that there were approximately 300 mental health courts nationwide as of 2016. Many of these courts are funded under a 2002 federal program known as the “Law Enforcement and Mental Health Project”. It sounds like a lot, but the real need is still not being met. Relatively recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that 55% of male inmates and 73% of female inmates in the United States are mentally ill. Further, 23% of these individuals were incarcerated three or more times, thereby demonstrating an unacceptably high recidivism rate among this segment of the overall inmate population. Additionally, over the last several decades, a considerable number of mental health commitments made previously to state hospitals and similar facilities for criminally involved mentally ill individuals have been eliminated. This has made local jails and state and federal prisons the largest providers of treatment for people who suffer from mental illness. Put somewhat differently, a substantial number of mentally ill people in the United States, a number of whom have relatively low-level criminal charges, are simply being warehoused in jails and prisons because we currently have no place else to put them.
The mental health courts with a sufficiently long track record are, however, providing support for the conclusion that these specialized programs work and work well. A recent three-year study issued by the Florida Institute of Technology demonstrates that defendants who participated in one mental health court program in Florida experienced a significant reduction in recidivism after receiving court-ordered treatment, as opposed to a jail sentence. This study examined 118 participants in an unidentified court. It showed that 90% of the program participants were not re-arrested three months after release. 81% were still charge-free after six months, and 54% had not re-entered the criminal justice system after three years. Finally, program participants who did re-enter the system were arrested for offenses that were much less severe than their original charges. Against this backdrop, the study’s authors asserted that the targeted, community-based treatment ordered by the court assisted program participants in developing the social skills necessary to deal with their issues in a way that allowed them to remain arrest and charge-free.
Unfortunately, too many states, including New Jersey, still lag behind in establishing mental health courts. This is particularly unfortunate in light of the State’s positive experience with drug courts, which are specialized courts designed to deal with defendants whose criminal conduct was motivated by addiction issues. Experience dictates that drug courts work. They provide treatment, counseling and therapy for people suffering from drug addiction thereby reducing the likelihood that they will re-enter the system, while also freeing jail and prison resources for violent offenders.
The arguments against establishing mental health courts are nothing short of silly. One of the primary arguments is that we cannot keep establishing specialized courts for unique classes of criminal defendants since that will result in a fragmented criminal justice system composed of a myriad of specialized therapeutic programs. This argument completely ignores the fact that mental health courts provide a different set of services for criminal defendants with significantly different needs. It also ignores the statistical evidence demonstrating the growing number of mentally ill defendants entering the system, and the associated need for providing them with services that will reduce and/or eliminated recidivism. Finally, it ignores the fact that removing mentally ill defendants from the mainstream criminal justice system frees up resources that could allow our jails and prisons to operate in a more efficient and cost-effective manner.
There is a real and growing need for mental health courts, and the time for Congress and the state legislatures to realize this and act on it is long overdue. The Florida study shows that these programs could work as well as drug courts, if they were given the chance.
James S. Friedman, Esq., is a criminal defense attorney based in New Brunswick, New Jersey, representing defendants in criminal cases in the Superior Court of New Jersey, the New York State criminal courts located in New York City, and all federal courts in New Jersey and New York City.