Mental Health Courts: Providing Access to Treatment, Restoration of Human Dignity and Recovery with Justice

coffey_kathleenby Hon. Kathleen Coffey

Voice of the Judiciary 

A mental health court is a specialty court whose purpose is to serve mentally ill criminal offenders in the early stages of the criminal process by offering a diversionary program of treatment and strict supervision instead of arrest and detention. It is a collaborative effort between the criminal justice and the mental health treatment systems intended to improve the quality of life of individuals with severe mental illness by providing access to comprehensive services instead of incarceration and to improve public safety by reducing recidivism.

Although it is undisputed that mental Illness rarely leads directly to criminal behavior, many mentally ill people  find themselves in court facing criminal complaints when their behaviors become threatening, aggressive or dangerous to themselves or others.  The use of substances such as alcohol and illegal drugs to self-medicate by the mentally ill populace  further increases the likelihood of  court involvement.

Experience shows that for individuals with severe mental illness, brief periods of custodial detention tend to exacerbate symptoms associated with depression, paranoia and anxiety. Often individuals have difficulty complying with standard reporting requirements imposed by probationary terms or conditions of release while awaiting trial. Those individuals can be disorganized and overwhelmed by the demands of daily living due to their mental illness.  The end result often is a cycle of arrest, incarceration, release and re-arrest with little hope of recovery or successful integration into the community. National and state evidence reveals a disproportionate number of individuals with some form of mental illness within the justice system as compared with the general population.

The creation and development of mental health courts in the Commonwealth is due in large part to the vision of retired Judge Maurice Richardson coupled with a generous private grant from the Sidney Baer Foundation (http://www.baerfoundation.com).  Judge Richardson recognized the cycle of court involvement for those suffering from a mental illness and the overriding need for a collaborative approach between the behavioral health system and courts to effectuate improved outcomes. The importance of the role of the Sidney Baer Foundation in combating mental health issues cannot be overstated.  Sidney Baer was a member of a wealthy and prominent family from the Midwest. While studying at Yale University, Sidney suffered a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He never graduated from Yale due to the challenges and obstacles that his mental illness presented.  With the help and advice of his friend and personal lawyer, Attorney George Handran, he established the Sidney Baer Foundation for the purpose of alleviating the suffering and loss of opportunities endured by the mentally ill. In 2007, in concert with the Boston Medical Center, the Trial Court received initial funding from the Baer Foundation and established the first mental health court in the Commonwealth in the Boston Municipal Court. http://www.baerfoundation.com/

There are presently seven mental health courts operating in the Commonwealth.  The Boston Municipal Court Department holds weekly  sessions in the Central, Roxbury and West Roxbury Court Divisions.  The District Court Department operates  mental health courts  in Springfield, Cambridge, Plymouth and Quincy Courts.

Each court utilizes a team based and problem solving approach. The judge, probation officer, mental health clinician, prosecutor and defense attorney maintain their distinct roles, but work in a collaborative effort to monitor the individual participant’s progress in adhering to the terms of probation, in securing and maintaining treatment and in achieving recovery.

Eligibility for participation differs to a small degree among the mental health courts in the Commonwealth. Some Courts will accept defendants pre-trial with untried open matters. Several courts require a post disposition probationary status.  Participation is voluntary. The Judge has authority to return the case to the traditional court system when there is a breach by the defendant of the program’s policies.

The process begins by a referral to the mental health court session. After consultation with a mental health clinician and the probation officer, eligibility is determined based upon the nature and circumstances of the offense, a psychiatric diagnosis, history of mental health treatment and the willingness of the participant to accept treatment and participate in the session. The clinician will then make a recommendation to the judge.  Once accepted, each participant receives an individualized treatment plan. The participant is required to return to the court session regularly for a remedial review of the effectiveness of the participant’s individualized treatment plan and an evaluation by the court of any obstacles and impediments that interfere with the participant’s ability to receive and maintain mental health treatment.  This ‘holistic’ approach is an important component to the session and it reinforces the message of the court to all participants that their lives have value and that the court is an invested partner in their recovery efforts.

CPCS Attorney David Shea, a public defender and mental health court practitioner maintains that,  ”Criminal cases often implicate serious collateral consequences-apart from potential incarceration-including housing, employment, education, and child custody problems…….Many clients find this holistic approach novel to a courtroom setting and the result is a dynamic that often engenders a powerful motivator; hope.”

Presently, there are over 200 defendants participating in mental health courts in the Commonwealth. 25 % are female and 75% are male. Over 60 % of the participants report a co-occurring substance use disorder and over 50% report a history of homelessness.   The most common mental health diagnoses are bipolar, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder.  The racial breakdown of participants is 47% white and 37% black. From June 2015 to June 2016, 40% of the participants successfully completed the mental health court program. The average length of participation in a mental health session is 9-12 months.

It is evident that the future of mental health courts in the Commonwealth will see increased participation due to the Trial Court’s recognition of the importance of addressing the unique and specialized needs of the mentally ill. To that end, the Trial Court has engaged in a state wide ‘Community Justice Project’  to identify resources and programs that will divert individuals diagnosed with a mental illness or substance use disorder at key events or ‘intercepts’ from the justice system and direct them to behavioral health treatment. By acknowledging the benefits of treatment and rehabilitation in lieu of incarceration, the mental health courts extend a compassionate alternative and instill a sense of hope in a vulnerable population.

The success of mental health courts can best be summed up by the words of a recent graduate from the West Roxbury Court’s ‘Recovery with Justice Program’. He told the court, “This program has broken the chains that kept pulling me back to jail. Thank you for giving me back my life. With the treatment you have helped me get, I now have hope that I will be able to work and be a part of my daughter’s life and I will stay out of trouble. “

Appointed to the bench in 1993 b y Governor William Weld, Judge Kathleen Coffey has been First Justice of the West Roxbury Court for the past nineteen years. She is the Director of Specialty Courts for the Boston Municipal Court Department. In 2007, she established the first Mental Health Court, and in 2010, the Homeless Court held at the Pine Street Inn.

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