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November 15, 2001

House-Senate Conferees Add $4 Million in Funding for Federal Mental Health Courts Program

On November 14, 2001 Congress gave final approval to legislation allocating $4 million as part of the FY 2002 budget for the Justice Department for the new federal mental health courts program. This funding is part of the FY 2002 Commerce-Justice-State appropriations bill (HR 2500) - legislation that will be soon sent to the White House, where President Bush is expected to sign it into law.

NAMI estimates that as many as 12 to 15 mental health courts can be funded in 2002, depending on the maximum grant amount set by the Justice Department and any local cost sharing requirements. In the coming weeks and months, NAMI will be advocating with the Justice Department to expedite the necessary grant announcement and formal request for proposals to applicant states, localities and court systems. In the coming weeks and months, NAMI affiliate leaders should begin contacting local judges and prosecutors to encourage their interest in applying to the Justice Department for funding to establish a mental health court.

NAMI is extremely grateful to leaders in Congress who fought to get these funds included in the Justice Department budget for the coming fiscal year. Among these key congressional allies were: Senators Mike DeWine (R-OH) and Pete Domenci (R-NM) and Representative Ted Strickland (D-OH). NAMI would also like to recognize the leaders of the House and Senate Commerce-Justice-State Appropriations Subcommittees who agreed to include mental health court funding in their annual bill: Senators Ernest Hollings (D-SC) and Judd Gregg (R-NH) and Representatives Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Jose Serrano (D-NY).

Background on the Mental Health Courts Program

Congress first authorized the federal Mental Health Courts program as part of legislation passed in 2000 (P.L. 106-515). This bipartisan legislation was sponsored by Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) and Representative Ted Strickland (D-OH). The establishment of mental health courts is rapidly emerging as one of the most successful strategies to address the stark reality that jails and prisons have become the nation's depository for people with severe mental illnesses. Mental health courts have already proven successful in Broward County, FL, King County, WA and other jurisdictions.

Mental health courts have been necessitated by the growing concern among judicial, law enforcement and corrections officials about the disturbing trend of persons with severe mental illness being inappropriately placed in jails for non-violent offenses.

What Are Mental Health Courts?

Congress passed America's Law Enforcement and Mental Health Project (P.L. 106-515) in 2000 in order to begin assisting states and communities across the nation in putting in place innovative approaches to diverting offenders into treatment programs and easing the growing burden on criminal justice and corrections systems. This new law authorizes the Justice Department to fund up to 100 such courts that involve:

  1. continuing judicial supervision, including periodic review over offenders with mental illness (or a co-occurring substance abuse disorder) who are charged with non-violent offenses, and
  2. coordinated delivery of services that include:
  • specialized training of law enforcement and judicial personnel to identify and address the unique needs of offenders with mental illness;
  • outpatient or inpatient treatment that carries with it the possibility of dismissal of charges or reduced sentencing upon successful completion of treatment;
  • centralized case management involving the consolidation of all a defendant's cases (including violations of probation);
  • the coordination of all mental health treatment plans and social services, including life skills training, such as housing placement, vocational training, education, job placement, health care, and relapse prevention for each participant who requires such services; and
  • continuing supervision of treatment plan compliance and continuity of psychiatric care for up to the maximum term of sentence of the criminal offense.

Some Facts about Individuals with Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System

People with serious mental illness are frequently arrested for minor offenses, many times as a result of homelessness, and then they are incarcerated in jails where their mental health needs are not met. There are also significant numbers of persons with serious mental illness who come in contact with the police, but are not arrested.

The U.S. Department of Justice reported in 1999 that 16% of all inmates in state and federal jails have a severe mental illness. 283,000 people with serious mental illnesses were in jail or prison - more than four times the number in state mental hospitals. The average daily number of patients in state and county psychiatric hospitals has steadily dropped from 592,853 in 1950 to 71,619 in 1994.

A recent Department of Justice report found more than three-quarters of inmates with mental illness had at least one prior prison, jail, or probation term. Some individuals are incarcerated scores of times. Probation systems are also affected, as 16% of probationers were persons with mental illness. Steadman, H.J., Morris, S.M., Dennis, D.L., "The diversion of mentally ill persons from jails to community-based services: A profile of programs." American Journal of Public Health, 85, 1630-1635 and Steadman, H.J., Deane, M.W., Morrissey, J.P., Westcott, M.L., Salasin, S. and Shapiro, S., "A SAMHSA Research Initiative Assessing the Effectiveness of Jail Diversion Programs for Mentally Ill Persons." Psychiatric Services, 50, 1620-1630.

Offenders with mental illnesses can place a heavy toll on the criminal justice system, draining significant police resources as these encounters may take a considerable amount of time.

In most communities, officers face significant problems when they bring individuals to local community mental health programs. These programs may be reluctant to take the person due to reimbursement issues or previous history with the individual or due to drug and alcohol problems. Hospitals will accept persons deemed dangerous to self or others but only after lengthy assessments. As a result, police can spend hours waiting for resolution on a single case, and the person with mental illness often returns to the street almost immediately.

When incarcerated, offenders with mental illnesses may present problems, particularly when they arrive in a disoriented or psychotic state. Once in jail, they remain longer than others with similar convictions. Often their condition deteriorates without appropriate treatment and issues concerning behavioral management arise.

There is little planning when an inmate with a mental illness is released. People leave jail without supplies of needed medications, public benefits to pay their living costs, or Medicaid for community-based mental health services. As a result, many people recycle back into the criminal justice system.  


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