National Alliance on Mental Illness
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An Alternative to Incarceration

The incarceration of people with mental illnesses has long been a concerning issue for mental health care and criminal justice professionals alike. Prisons are ill equipped to meet the needs of offenders with mental illnesses. Furthermore, the criminalization of this population does not result in care, but adds to the cycle of prison violence and lack of treatment during incarceration and upon release. In recent years, mental health courts have been developed in order to combat the criminalization of the mentally ill by offering treatment instead of prison sentences. Mental health courts consist of specific dockets dedicated to individuals with mental illnesses. The purpose of such courts is to divert persons with mental illnesses away from jail or prison and have them enter into treatment programs in their communities. Defendants are monitored by an appointed judge and community mental health care workers assigned to their case. The ultimate goal of such courts is to decriminalize mental illness and separate those with mental illnesses from a criminal population. The implementation of mental health courts is a positive and growing agenda aimed to assist defendants not only remain out of trouble, but receive treatment and have that care continue after their case is dismissed. Congress feels mental health courts are a needed institution. Therefore it has promoted their development by passing America's Law Enforcement and Mental Health Project Act in 2000. The Act instructed the Surgeon General to fund mental health court projects. The following story covered in the San Francisco Chronicle is the fruition of one such project in San Francisco, California.

The San Francisco Behavioral Court is a three year old program that offers criminal defendants with an Axis-1 diagnosis the opportunity to receive mental health treatment instead of incarceration. Within this program, once an individual is given a psychological assessment in jail, the jail can refer this inmate to the court or, the individual’s attorney can request the inmate’s participation. All defendants in this mental health court are voluntary. Once the individual has been accepted by the court, he or she must follow the treatment program agreed upon by the judge, legal counsel, and participating mental health care agencies. Within this court, every Thursday morning mental health care professionals update the judge on the defendant’s progress. In the afternoon, each defendant receives individualized court time with the judge to discuss their case, treatment program, and long term goals. San Francisco’s public defender, Mr. Jeff Adachi, states that the Behavioral Mental Health Court is positive for the criminal justice system as it diverts persons with mental illness away from prison and into their community for supervised care.

NAMI supports the enactment of mental health courts and applauds the city of San Francisco in its efforts to stop the criminalization of people with mental illnesses. NAMI supports the further establishment of mental health courts across the country and the continuation of mental health and criminal justice professionals to work together to assist this population obtain needed supports.  Read the article in the San Francisco Chronicle. (opens in a new browser window)

Read more about NAMI’s position on the criminalization of people with mental illness.

Learn more about Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) from NAMI's CIT Technical Assistance Resource Center.