National Alliance on Mental Illness
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 Congressional Briefing On Mental Health Courts

(Action Needed To Increase Participation)

For Immediate Release, 27 Sep 99
Contact: Chris Marshall

On September 29, a bipartisan coalition of members of Congress will convene a seminar on Capitol Hill on the success of Mental Health Courts in reversing the disturbing trend of "criminalization" of mental illness. This briefing is intended to educate members of Congress and their staffs on how Mental Health Courts are effective in 1) diverting children and adults with severe mental illness from jails and prisons where treatment services do not exist and 2) delivering treatment services to people with serious brain disorders who are currently serving long sentences in state and local jails. NAMI is supporting this briefing as an important step forward in helping members of Congress better understand how the criminal justice system has become the "dumping ground" in communities where underfunded public mental health programs have failed to deliver adequate services and supports for people with serious brain disorders.


NAMI is grateful to the sponsors of this briefing - U.S. Representatives Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Ted Strickland (D-OH) and Nancy Johnson (R-CT). In order to ensure that as many members of Congress and their staffs attend this important briefing, NAMI advocates are urged to contact members of their state's congressional delegation and ask that they support this event by sending a member of their staff. Tell your member of Congress how Mental Health Courts could work (or are already working) in your community.

This briefing will be held Wednesday, September 29 at 2:00 p.m. in Room 2105 of the Rayburn House Office Building. Speakers include: Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren, Broward County Florida (a presenter at the 1999 NAMI convention), Dr. Andrea Weisman, DC Central Detention Facility, Professor Brenda Smith, American University Law School, Dave Norman, Esquire, DC Public Defenders Office and Sally Peck, Murder Victims Families.

All members of Congress can be reached by calling the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 or by going to the NAMI website at and click on "Write to Congress."


In 1992, NAMI and the Public Citizen's Health Research Group released "Criminalizing the Seriously Mentally Ill," a report authored by E. Fuller Torrey, M.D. This report disclosed in shocking detail how jails have become the "mental institutions" of the 1990s. In many parts of the country, states have begun programs that are leading to a reduction in the number of persons with serious mental illnesses who are inappropriately jailed after not receiving the services they need from local mental health systems. By creating a court to handle misdemeanor cases involving individuals with these brain disorders, the county hopes to quickly resolve such cases and to divert these individuals into appropriate treatment programs instead of the criminal justice system.

One of the first and most successful of these local programs is the "mental health court" in Broward County, Florida. Begun in 1997, the program is loosely modeled after so-called "drug courts," established in many parts of the country to hear misdemeanor cases involving offenders with substance abuse disorders. Despite the belief of many that drug courts represent an effective way to divert minor drug offenders into treatment, they have not until now served as a model for people with severe mental illnesses. The Broward County mental health court is believed to be the first of its kind in the United States.

According to Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren, all misdemeanor cases involving individuals identified as severely mentally ill are heard on an expedited basis, either on the same day as or the day after the initial arrest. Depending on the circumstances of specific cases, the court has the authority to divert individuals into inpatient or outpatient treatment, or to release them. The court also has the power to institute conditional release or civil commitment orders when individuals meet the legal criteria for these mechanisms. Finally, the court is vested with the power to revoke conditional discharges when individuals do not comply with treatment plans. As one observer of Broward County's program has noted, the court has been effective in diverting misdemeanants with severe mental illnesses away from jails and into appropriate treatment. "Mentally ill people who commit misdemeanors shouldn't be in jail . .. . it's not humane, it's not right, it's not cost-effective."