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National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Mental Health Courts to the Rescue: An Innovation That's Working

The scenario is all too common in this day and age of inadequate mental health services: A person with a serious mental illness, needing treatment, attracts the attention of the police because he or she is acting in a bizarre and inappropriate way. This person is not a criminal, but rather someone who needs professional mental health treatment and services.

Across the country, jails and prisons have emerged as de-facto psychiatric treatment facilities, although they are ill-equipped to meet this responsibility. Now a potential solution has emerged in the form of Mental Health Courts (MHCs).

Thanks in part to the tireless efforts of NAMI members over the last six years, there are approximately 70 MHCs across the country and many more in the planning stages. MHCs were created as a link between the criminal justice system and mental health services, with the goal of reducing the criminalization of mental illnesses, overcrowding in jails and prisons, and recidivism rates by improving access to treatment.

MHCs are run and staffed by court personnel and mental health professionals who understand the needs of persons with mental illnesses. In the case of criminal defendants with mental illnesses, many are now diverted from traditional criminal courts into MHCs, where they are sentenced to treatment programs, including community-based supports, rather than jails where mental health treatment is woefully inadequate. The court monitors clients to ensure that they are complying with the terms of their treatment programs. If clients are non-compliant, the court can impose sanctions, ranging from altering a client’s treatment program to incarceration.

NAMI has begun compiling information on all of these courts, such as contact information, eligibility requirements and sources of funding to assist consumers seeking diversion programs and advocates seeking to create mental health courts in their communities. NAMI, in conjunction with other organizations and persons, will continue to compile and update this information, which will be available soon on the NAMI website at www.nami.org.

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