Mental Health Courts

Tammy Seltzer, J.D., of Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

In the past few years, mental health courts have emerged as the newest tool for addressing the growing and disproportionate representation of people with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system. These specialty courts strive to reduce the incarceration and recidivism of people with mental illnesses. Most proponents of mental health courts are acting out of recognition that people with mental disabilities and their communities are both ill-served by the incarceration of most people with mental illnesses. Although supporters' intentions are commendable, the mental health court model raises a number of concerns that should be considered and addressed by communities that have existing courts or are entertaining such proposals.

As these courts have proliferated, the Bazelon Center has studied the different models, surveying most of the early courts and observing several in operation. Workshop participants will learn about the inherent problems with such courts, how they are not designed to address the underlying reasons why people with mental illnesses are being arrested and incarcerated, and discuss how the specific practices of certain courts raise serious civil rights concerns.  Participants will discuss whether mental health courts could ever be an acceptable part of a system that works to divert those whose arrests are unavoidable.

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