National Alliance on Mental Illness
page printed from
(800) 950-NAMI;

Mental Health on the Bench: Empowering Judges to Change the Way the Criminal Justice System Responds to Mental Illness and Substance Abuse

On a given day in Florida, more than 70,000 people with mental illness are under correctional supervision. Until recently, judges and attorneys working with these individuals had few training opportunities or information about mental illness. 

Florida Partners in Crisis (FLPIC), an organization that brings together criminal justice leaders, mental health and substance abuse service providers and advocates, is changing that.  Gail Cordial, the organization’s executive director, says that the idea came from judges themselves, including Judge Mark Speiser, a pioneer in the mental health court movement. Speiser said judges face a huge challenge in managing the many individuals with mental health and substance abuse in their courts, because the mental health and substance service systems and the judicial system are not well integrated.

In response to this need, Partners has held two statewide Justice Institutes, training sessions designed for judges and other criminal justice professionals, including attorneys. In addition to learning about clinical and legal issues, judges participating in the Institutes have an opportunity to discuss their concerns and share strategies with their peers.

Experienced judges presiding over mental health courts and drug courts, which specialize in developing treatment-oriented plans for individuals who have been charged with crimes and have mental illness or substance abuse conditions, find the information and resources they need over time. However, other judges may know little about mental illness and about the options available. Speiser says, “Having the training institutes can sensitize judges to this population of the mentally ill, and provide them with options, alternatives and answers they might not otherwise have access to.”

Partners in Crisis (FLPIC) is also developing a “bench book” for judges who have been through the training to get quick, reliable information about mental illness and substance abuse during their day-to-day work. The bench book will be published by the end of 2012.    

While FLPIC initially worked with mental health and drug court judges and public defenders, the audience for their training has expanded. Cordial says, “The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Judges are spreading the word to their peers. One judge who attended the training in 2011 offered to cover a colleague’s docket so he could attend this year.”

Cordial says FLPIC aims to develop a menu of training options that can inform judges, attorneys, court personnel and other criminal justice professionals, as well as service providers. Training topics include mental illnesses and symptoms, medications and their side effects, legal issues and programs that can reduce criminal justice involvement all along the spectrum before arrest to reentry. Cordial also plans regional trainings, so that judges and other professionals will be able to attend training close to home.

The Big Picture

In addition to equipping judges to better serve people with mental illness and substance abuse conditions in their courts, the project has a larger agenda. Cordial says that they educate the judges about the many kinds of local programs that can prevent people from getting involved in the justice system, or help them get out, such as police crisis intervention teams, re-entry programs, supported housing and employment.

Armed with this knowledge, judges can lead their communities in developing these programs and even apply for state funding to get started. Cordial explains that through the state’s Criminal Justice, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Reinvestment grant program, counties have an opportunity to get funding, but “all the community stakeholders need to be on board. Judges have the ability to call a meeting and everyone shows up.”  Judge Speiser agrees, “A judge has, because of his or her role and title and position, the inherent authority and power to bring people together.”

But, Speiser says there is another good reason for judges to get involved: because it’s the right things to do. “Every judge in every state is subject to the same judicial canon of ethics… to improve the quality of the administration of justice. Justice means not just doling out punishment, but reaching the right result.”

With this kind of leadership from judges and other leaders in the criminal justice system, says Cordial, “Our long term goal is that we’ll stop incarcerating people simply because they have a mental illness.”

Visit the Florida Partners in Crisis website or contact Gail Cordial at for more information.