Mental Health Courts Can Struggle to Fulfill Decades-Old Promise

Donald Brown, a 55-year-old man with depression, addiction, and suicidal thoughts, was struggling to keep up with the requirements of a special diversion program aimed at keeping people with mental illness out of jail. If he failed to complete the program, he faced possible incarceration. Critics worry that mental health courts can be expensive, resource-intensive, and not focused on treatment. Research shows little evidence that these courts improve mental health or keep participants out of the criminal justice system long-term. Participants can feel pressured to enter the courts, and resource limitations can increase the pressures to apply for these programs. Some courts exclude those accused of violent or sexual crimes, and judges often aren’t trained to make decisions about participants’ care. While some participants praise the courts for providing a much-needed lifeline, others feel that the requirements of the program aren’t focused on recovery and can lead to incarceration if not met.

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