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Mental Health Courts: A Continuing Trend

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

As if regular courts weren't enough, South Carolina has voted to expand the state's mental health courts, reported the South Carolina newspaper The State.

Since their inception in the late 1990s, various states have implemented mental health courts, with great success. They take the position that criminal violations based on mental illness should be treated as a mental health problem, not a penal one. Will this trend continue?

A Good Alternative

Many states have mental health courts as an alternative to the criminal court system when it becomes clear that a defendant is committing crimes because he or she has mental health issues that are better addressed in that context, rather than a criminal justice one.

Beginning in the early 1960s (before Ronald Reagan was supposed to have closed down the mental institutions as California governor, according to the old story), mental health facilities began the process of "deinstitutionalizing" patients, on the theory that it was cheaper and that patients would be better taken care of in their communities. In reality, deinstitutionalized patients weren't taken care of and they ended up instead committing crimes and getting sentenced to jail or prison.

The end result, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is that 56% of state prisoners, 45% of federal prisoners, and 64% of local jail inmates have a mental disorder identified by the DSM-IV. (That's compared to about 7% of the general adult population who suffer from a serious mental illness.) So, if you're thinking that the criminal justice system is largely a repository for people with untreated mental health problems, you're probably right -- but the problem is that jails and prisons are supposed to be in the business of punishment and rehabilitation, not treating mental illness.

Enter Mental Health Courts

Rather than locking up the mentally ill in an institution where they'll receive no treatment and be temporarily housed until they commit another crime as a result of that illness, mental health courts like the ones in South Carolina "divert mentally ill offenders away from the criminal justice system and into treatment programs, much as drug courts do for drug offenders," The State wrote.

The program is also a boon for states like California, where the U.S. Supreme Court said the prisons were unconstitutionally overcrowded. And not only does diverting mentally ill defendants save the state prison space and cost, it addresses the root cause of offending -- mental illness -- and doesn't just get people off the streets. This reduces the chance that the state's resources will be spent on prosecuting and housing the same offenders over and over again.

And guess what? In the burgeoning field of mental health courts, defendants will need attorneys who are knowledgeable in that field. This could be a good chance to expand your practice or perform a little pro bono work on the side. Basically, it's a win-win for everyone.

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