Mental Health Courts

AuthorJennifer Johnson
Mental Health Courts
Jennifer Johnson
“They want to put my client in a mental health court. Is this a good thing?”
The typical lawyerly response would be, “that depends.” This chapter by
Attorney Jennifer Johnson describes the essential elements of a mental
health court, as well as discusses more complicated issues such as the
collateral consequences of a client’s participation in a mental health court,
confidentiality, and the ethical implications of functioning as a team member.
In this editor’s opinion, as with any case, you as a defense lawyer repre-
senting someone with a mental disability must ask if you have a triable case.
Although your client may have a diagnosable mental illness or intellectual/
developmental disability, there may be valid pretrial or trial issues that should
be litigated, in which case, the case might be handled by a traditional court. As
a lawyer, in consultation with your client, you should ask if this is a case where
an acquittal or dismissal is possible. If so, you should weigh that against the
guilty plea, which is often the price of admission in a mental health court, and
as such, carries the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction.
• • •
This chapter focuses on mental health courts and how they help manage
our growing public health and public safety crisis in a way that is both just
and humane. One important point to keep in mind is that mental health
courts vary dramatically from one jurisdiction to another in a way that other
problem-solving courts do not. There is no simple how-to guide on mental
health courts because in the words of one leading researcher in the field, “If
you’ve seen one mental health court, you’ve seen one mental health court.”
172 Representing People with Mental Disabilities
What Is a Mental Health Court and
Why Do We Have One?
In the late 1990s, there were only a few mental health courts in the United
States. These therapeutic, problem-solving courts were modeled after
drug courts with a specific focus on the increasing number of people with
mental health issues working their way through the criminal justice sys-
tem. Today, there are more than 360 adult mental health courts and at
least 51 juvenile mental health courts in the nation.
Although there is no official definition of a mental health court, the
description the California Courts use is representative:
Mental health courtsare a type of problem solving courtthat combine
judicial supervision with communitymental health treatment and other
support services in order to reduce criminal activity and improve the qual-
ity of life of participants.
The public policy reasons for developing a mental health court in a
particular jurisdiction may be different from place to place depending on
the specific problems in the criminal justice system, the level of homeless-
ness on the streets, the ability of the jurisdiction to provide treatment, and
the willingness of the community to take on the risk of starting mental
health court. The policy goals set out by the California Courts are a rep-
resentative example of what most mental health courts strive for:
Mental health courts are established to make more effective use of lim-
ited criminal justice and mental health resources, to connect individuals
to treatment and other social services in the community, to improve out-
comes for offenders with mental illness in the criminal justice system, to
respond to public safety concerns, and to address jail overcrowding and
the disproportionate number of people with mental illness in the criminal
justice system.
This chapter explores five of the major policy goals that have emerged over
the past twenty years, and ones that most mental health courts embrace.
Reduce the Number of People with Mental
Illness in Jail
A mental health court should identify people who are in the criminal justice
system because their behavior is a product of untreated mental illness,
and redirect them to quality community-based mental health services.

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