In my last post, I detailed the strengths of the mental health court system, but as with all things, there are two sides to every story, and in this post, I will take a look at the criticisms of mental health courts.

Both mental health advocates and judges alike take issue with the fact that in many mental health courts, medication is part of the treatment course, and even though participants are voluntary, forced medication as part of a mandated treatment program brings up ethical concerns.

Another major issue is the lack of available mental health services. Critics argue that already-long waiting lists at mental health clinics limit the referral abilities of mental health courts. Before we can divert mentally ill offenders from incarceration, we need to create new referral sources with the ability to take new clients into treatment.

Stigmatization and mandated/longer sentencing requirements also plague mental health courts. Mental Health America, an advocacy group for people with mental illnesses, has developed a position statement on mental health courts, which supports their use, but discourages over-criminalization of mentally ill offenders. In some cases, one year of mandated treatment and “check-in” court dates might be equivalent to three months in jail. While some might argue that this is still better than incarceration, advocates suggest that the time does not always fit the crime when mental health courts become involved.

Finally, because clients must be voluntary participants in mental health court, they are automatically pleading guilty and choosing treatment over jail in order to participate. Good legal services should be a part of this decision; however many mentally ill defendants only have public defenders which may, or may not, advise the best legal course. As a result, people who participate in mental health court are convicted, where in criminal court they may not have been. This decision could impact their future career and housing options, among other things.

Overall, the concerns about mental health courts are:

  • Forced medication and/or civil commitment requirements
  • Lack of referral sources/mental health agencies for treatment mandates
  • Stigmatization
  • Longer “sentence” mandates
  • Over-criminalization of the mentally ill
  • Coercion to plead guilty

This post is Part III of a multi-part series exploring mental health courts. This series will examine the role of mental health courts, the pros and cons of such courts, and future considerations. (To read the other posts in this series, click here.) If you, or someone you know, has a mental illness and becomes involved with the criminal justice system, consider reading the article “Dealing with the Criminal Justice System” by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The article provides a great overview of what to expect throughout the criminal proceedings, and offers unique information for those with a mental illness.