Mental Health Courts

What is a Mental Health court?

Mental health courts (MHC) are a form of collaborative court that provides specific services and treatment to defendants dealing with mental illness. Mental health courts provide an alternative to the traditional court system by emphasizing a problem-solving model and connecting defendants to a variety of rehabilitative services and support networks. Each MHC has different participant requirements and available services. The goal of a mental health court is to:

  • support participants successful return to society and reduce recidivism;
  • increase public safety; and,
  • improve individual’s quality of life.

How do they work?

  • Mental health courts only accept people with demonstrable mental illnesses that can be connected to the individual’s illegal behavior.
  • Participation in a mental health court is voluntary and the defendant must consent to involvement in the program.
  • Screening and referral to a mental health court should occur as soon as possible after arrest to insure early intervention.
  • Screening is also used to determine whether a mental health court can provide appropriate resources and support to the individual.
  • Mental health courts use a structure of case management based in intensive supervision/monitoring and individual accountability.
  • Case management is supervised by a team of professionals; teams are typically comprised of members of the justice system, mental health providers, and other support systems.
  • The judge oversees the treatment and supervision process, and facilitates collaboration among team members.

In 2008, the Council of State Government Justice Center published a report outlining the 10 Essential Elements of Mental Health Courts. These essential elements provide guidelines for developing and operating a mental health court; including target participants, various types of services and support, and the creation of an effective court team. The original report can be found here.

Are Mental Health Courts Effective?

Yes. Most studies find that adult mental health courts have a positive effect on participants’ rehabilitation and criminal behavior during and after their participation. Specifically, studies have found that mental health court participants are significantly more likely to utilize treatment services, less likely to be rearrested, and spent fewer days in jail as opposed to nonparticipants. Studying the effectiveness of mental health courts can be challenging due to several factors including the difficulty of measuring the outcome of rehabilitative services and finding appropriate control groups. As such, continued research will be especially helpful for increasing the sample size of studies and determining the lasting effects of MHC participation over time.