Ways Prosecutors Can Bolster the Local Continuum of Behavioral Health Care and Access to Mental Health Services.

AuthorStein, Melissa Neal

Prosecutors are not traditionally considered leaders in reducing the justice system involvement of individuals with mental health disorders, but they can play a critical role in increasing access of justice-involved individuals to treatment and services, as well as supporting the development of the entire local behavioral health care continuum. Prosecutors often become aware when individuals with mental health disorders are cycling through the local criminal justice system and become a familiar face. Nationally, people with mental illness are disproportionately represented in jails and prisons: approximately 44 percent of individuals in jail and 37 percent of individuals in prison have been told they have a mental health disorder. Without sufficient treatment and services, individuals with mental disorders often slip through the gaps and remain entangled in the justice system. Since prosecutors are elected officials in many jurisdictions, they can be a powerful force in making improvements to the criminal justice system. They can leverage their role and positional power to increase access of individuals with mental health disorders to critical treatment and services, thus reducing the cycle of these individuals in the justice system. However, many prosecutors are unsure how to advocate for better services, link individuals to treatment, or help support the local continuum of behavioral health care. Here are three general areas where prosecutors may begin.


People experiencing a mental illness or an intellectual or developmental disability may struggle to comprehend the terminology and processes involved with their case. Prosecutors can provide written materials and verbal assistance to ensure that individuals understand what decisions are being made, what choices are available, and what requirements have been set. When a person has chosen to represent him or herself, actively listening and asking the individual to share back what they have heard can help prosecutors ensure that the right information has been provided and understood by the individual.

Early in the court case, it may be possible to refer the individual to a deferred prosecution program designed for individuals with mental health disorders or to treatment court programs, such as a mental health court. In some jurisdictions, prosecutors are taking a lead role by creating programs that allow an individual to be quickly diverted into...

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