mental health court, mentally ill offenders
Akron Beacon Journal, Paul Tople/AP

California’s Mental Health Courts Face Funding Cuts

October 07, 2008 12:38 PM
by Denis Cummings
Mental health courts have been shown to be a cost-effective solution for mentally ill offenders, but some courts are facing a funding shortage.

Mental Health Courts Losing Funding

Mental health courts are special courts designed to help mentally ill offenders receive treatment and support. Under most programs, an offender is supervised by social workers and parole officers, who make sure the offender is taking the proper medication, attending treatment classes and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

A typical offender is one who has been charged with a misdemeanor or nonviolent crime like drug possession and theft. In exchange for pleading guilty, the offender is placed under the care of the system for the next 18 months.

Such courts in California may soon be losing their funding as the state struggles with its budget. In San Francisco, the Behavioral Health Court “faces intensive case management cuts,” while Sacramento County’s Mental Health Court had its state grant pulled recently.

“The cuts expand and reinforce the county jail’s role as San Francisco’s largest mental health facility,” writes Fred J. Martin Jr., a visiting scholar at University of California at Berkeley, in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Yet we cannot clean up our city, curb street crime, reduce drug use and fight violent crime unless we treat and care for these mentally ill.”

Background: Prosecuting and treating mentally ill offenders

Advocates say mental health courts are necessary to help people who commit crimes not out of malevolence, but because of their mental illness. “I know very few mentally ill people who get up and say ‘I’m going to do a criminal act today,’” says Salt Lake City Prosecutor Sim Gill. “For many, criminal conduct is a result of their mental illness.”

The system has been shown to help offenders improve their behavior and stay out of trouble. A recent report issued by the Utah Criminal Justice Center found that just 20 percent of those who complete the mental health program at Salt Lake County Justice Court re-offend within a year, though the number increases each year after the program is completed. Overall, though, graduates of the program “are not in jail as often, are committing fewer crimes and are having less contact with police and medical staff,” writes The Salt Lake Tribune.

Proponents also say that the courts are not only effective in rehabilitating mentally ill criminals but also cost-effective for the court system. Judge Evelyn Stratton, who was instrumental in bringing the courts to Ohio, told NPR that a patient in the mental health court system costs taxpayers $30 a day, compared to $60 a day in prison and $451 a day in a mental health hospital.

Florida Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren, who oversaw one of the early mental health courts in the late 1990s, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that treating the mentally ill like common criminals is ineffective and inefficient. “The consequences of not having well-developed mental health care systems have been enormous, both in wastes, as far as over-utilization of hospitals and jails, to loss of productivity for employers,” she said.

Reference: Mental health guide and organizations


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