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Mental Health Court: What is it?

Mental health courts are a fairly new institution in the United States. They are courts designed to meet the needs of mentally ill offenders. Similar to drug courts that address substance abusing offenders, mental health courts focus on treatment, rather than punishment.

“From the criminal law perspective, two rationales underlie the therapeutic court approach: first, to protect the public by addressing the mental illness that contributed to the criminal act, thereby reducing recidivism, and second, to recognize that criminal sanctions, whether intended as punishments or deterrents, are neither effective nor morally appropriate when mental illness is a significant cause of the criminal act. The goals of mental health courts, then, are: 1) to break the cycle of worsening mental illness and criminal behavior that begins with the failure of the community mental health system and is accelerated by the inadequacy of treatment in prisons and jails; and 2) to provide effective treatment options instead of the usual criminal sanctions for offenders with mental illnesses.” (Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, 2004).

The first mental health court opened in Broward County, Florida in 1997, and in 2000 The Clinton Administration and Congress signed the “America’s Law Enforcement and Mental Health Project” into act. This act provided funding for 100 mental health courts nation-wide, with plans for more if those succeeded. Currently, more than 150 mental health courts exist in the United States.

Contact with the criminal justice system can be a particularly devastating experience for individuals with mental illness, as a criminal record can affect their access to housing and treatment facilities. Although each mental health court functions independently within its own jurisdiction, there are certain similarities that differentiate these courts from the typical criminal court.

  • Each court requires voluntary participation, so the defendant must consent to be a part of the program and consent to treatment.
  • Each court has eligibility criteria; all include mental illness as defined by the DSM-IV-TR and some include developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injury as possible qualifiers for participation in mental health court.
  • Mental health courts employ legal and mental health professionals to address a specialized docket that focuses solely on preventing incarceration of mentally ill individuals, offering court mandated treatment as an alternative.
  • Mental health courts also place public safety in the highest regard when considering treatment/housing options for mentally ill offenders.
  • In general, most mental health courts offer a higher level of supervision, requiring clients to attend regular status hearings to assess the progress of treatment and to update treatment plans.
  • Finally, most programs have defined criteria for completion of the program, marked with a graduation or certificate of completion.

The next post in this series will explain the positive outcomes of mental health courts. Stay tuned!

This post is Part I 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.

Mental Health Court: What is it?

Kelly McAleer, Psy.D.

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APA Reference
McAleer, K. (2010). Mental Health Court: What is it?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Apr 2010
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