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Government News
Congress Votes Funds for Mental Health Courts
Psychiatric News
Volume 36 Number 24 page 7-7

To keep people who have severe and persistent mental illness and commit minor offenses from being incarcerated in the nation’s jails and prisons, Congress approved a $4 million Fiscal 2002 budget in November for the federal Mental Health Courts Program.

The funding is part of the 2002 Commerce-Justice-State Appropriations Act (HR 2500) and will be distributed by the Department of Justice to states and court systems that apply for grant money to establish mental health courts. It is expected that 12 to 15 mental health courts will be established with the money once President George W. Bush signs the bill into law, as he is expected to do.

Congress authorized the federal Mental Health Courts Program in 2000, although several mental health courts have operated independently of federal law and funding.

The first mental health court appeared in Broward County, Fla., in 1997, to keep nonviolent offenders out of the criminal justice system and to get them into treatment instead (Psychiatric News, November 5, 1999). Since that time, mental health courts have also cropped up in Washington state and Ohio.

The Mental Health Courts Program authorized the Department of Justice to fund up to 100 mental health courts in which judges, social workers, probation officers, and other justice-system personnel work to divert offenders with mental illness from languishing in the criminal justice system when they would benefit from comprehensive treatment alternatives. Through court monitoring and case management, those with mental illness who have committed minor offenses such as trespassing or disorderly conduct, for example, are diverted to mental health services in the community.

Congressional advocates who were strong backers of authorization and federal funding of mental health courts included Sens. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio).

The funded mental health courts must adhere to the following provisions:

• continue to supervise cases for up to one year after the court date and conduct periodic reviews of cases at least every 45 days,

• provide specialized training for law enforcement and judicial personnel to prepare them to address the mental health needs of offenders,

• provide inpatient or outpatient treatment that may result in dismissal of criminal charges or a reduced sentence once the person completes the required treatment, and

• coordinate mental health treatment plans and social services such as life-skills training, housing placement, vocational training and job placement, other types of health care, and relapse prevention. ▪

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