Mental Health Courts

Mission and Goals

New York State’s mental health courts seek to improve public safety, court operations, and the well-being of people with mental illness by linking to court-supervised, community-based treatment defendants whose mental illness is related to their current criminal justice involvement and whose participation in the Mental Health Court will not create an increased risk to public safety.

The impetus behind each Mental Health Court reflects local needs and priorities. Some Mental Health Courts originated where Drug Courts were faced with challenges presented by drug court participants with co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Others were designed to help alleviate overcrowding in the local jail. Virtually all Mental Health Courts, however, have identified some combination of the following goals:

Improve public safety: Many people with mental illness cycle repeatedly through the criminal justice system. Linking these offenders to community-based services is intended to reduce recidivism.

Reduce length of time in jail or prison for offenders with mental illness: Mental Health Courts seek to reduce both the frequency of arrests and the duration of incarceration of offenders with mental illness for whom community-based treatment is an appropriate alternative to incarceration.

Use overtaxed criminal justice resources more efficiently: Mental Health Courts are a means of reducing the frequency of contacts between law enforcement and people with mental illness, improving court operations in cases involving defendants with mental illness, and minimizing the strains on correctional facilities caused by incarcerating people with mental illness.

Improve courts' ability to identify, assess and monitor offenders with mental illness: By equipping courts with the tools necessary to perform meaningful assessments, identify appropriate treatment options and make connections to the mental health system, mental health courts provide judges with the means to make more informed decisions about cases involving offenders with mental illness.

Improve quality of life for people with mental illness: Mental Health Courts seek to reverse the trend in recent decades toward “criminalization” of mental illness, a term that describes society’s use of the criminal justice system to respond to behaviors associated with or caused by mental illness. Instead of incarcerating mentally ill offenders, Mental Health Courts can help to connect them to community-based treatment and support services that encourage recovery.

Improve coordination between the mental health and criminal justice systems: In bringing together criminal justice and mental health stakeholders and involving many parties in the planning and implementation process, Mental Health Courts are catalysts for cross-training and systems improvement programs.

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