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

Survey of Mental Health Courts

NAMI is pleased to announce the publication of the "Survey of Mental Health Courts," the first comprehensive assessment of mental health courts throughout the United States. The Survey is the result of collaborative efforts between NAMI, the Council of State Governments (coordinator of the Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project), and the National GAINS Center for People with Co-Occurring Disorders in the Justice System. This survey would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of Mr. Paul Spaite, Esq., a NAMI member from Ohio. All of the organizations involved with this project are grateful to Mr. Spaite for his work.

Mental health courts are a relatively new and innovative way of combating the growing problem of our nation’s jails and prisons being used as de facto treatment facilities for persons with mental illnesses who have been accused of crimes. These problem-solving courts have a dedicated mental health docket, meaning that they focus exclusively on defendants with mental illnesses, and link these defendants to appropriate treatment and supportive services instead of incarceration. Mental health courts are characterized by continuing judicial supervision over a defined period of time, voluntary participation on the part of the offender and, in many cases, upon an offender’s successful completion of a mental health program, the dropping of criminal charges against the individual.

NAMI has long supported alternatives to the criminalization of persons living with mental illnesses and we are pleased to report that as of September 2003, as many as 80 mental health courts are in existence or in planning stages throughout the country. Funding for these courts is derived from federal, state and/or local sources. Many of these courts were created with federal grants provided through bipartisan legislation (America’s Law Enforcement and Mental Health Project Act, P.L. 106-515) in 2000. In Fiscal Year 2002, Congress appropriated $5 million for the mental health courts program and in Fiscal Year 2003, it appropriated $4 million.

Ironically, at a time when these courts are proliferating and beginning to yield results, they are in danger of losing critical support from Congress.  The House of Representatives allocated no money for mental health courts in its Fiscal Year 2004 Appropriations bill and the Senate Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary Appropriations Subcommittee similarly appropriated no money for these courts.  Advocacy is needed to ensure that funding is restored when the full Senate considers the appropriations bill for Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary in the coming weeks.

Although data from these courts is just beginning to emerge and therefore any conclusion about trends is premature, it is nonetheless interesting to note that many of these courts accept felony offenders in addition to misdemeanants.  Also noteworthy is the availability in many instances of not only deferred sentencing in the post-plea phase of court proceedings but also deferred prosecution in the pre-plea phase.  The Survey reveals a variety of methods employed by the different courts to meet the same end—getting low-level offenders with mental illness out of incarceration and into effective treatment.

The Survey of Mental Health Courts is an evolving work, as are the courts it profiles.  We urge you to contact us with any changes, corrections, additions, or suggestions regarding a court about which you may have particular knowledge.  The Survey is meant to be a tool for consumers, family members, advocates, court personnel, legislators, researchers, and others who are interested in alternatives to criminalization of persons living with mental illnesses.  We hope you find this tool helpful.

The Mental Court Survey data has now been incorporated into the Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project's Local Programs Database. You can also enter information about new courts on this website.

If you would like to help NAMI with the gathering of other critically important data, won't you please make a donation today?  Your support will help ensure that vital tools - like this survey - help make a real difference in the lives of those people living with a mental illness.