Problem-Solving Courts/Specialty Courts | NAMI

Problem-Solving Courts/Specialty Courts

Where We Stand:

NAMI believes in minimizing justice-system response to people with mental illness, while ensuring that any interactions preserve health, well-being and dignity. NAMI supports the use of problem-solving courts as part of a broad strategy to reduce incarceration and promote diversion from further involvement in the criminal justice system for people with mental illness.

Why We Care:

People with mental illness and substance use disorders (SUDs) are overrepresented in our nation’s jails and prisons. An estimated 44% of people in jails and 37% of people in prisons have a mental illness, and an estimated 65% of people in prisons have an underlying SUD. In the veterans’ community, 55% of the nearly 50,000 veterans incarcerated in local jails report experiencing a mental illness.

Mental illness is not a crime, but untreated symptoms and limited access to care lead many to involvement with the criminal justice system. Many of these individuals are held for committing non-violent, minor offenses and misdemeanors resulting from the symptoms of untreated illness (disorderly conduct, loitering, trespassing, disturbing the peace) or for offenses like shoplifting and petty theft.

Problem-solving courts (also known as specialty courts) are specialized dockets within the criminal justice system that seek to address underlying mental health or SUD that contribute to the commission of certain criminal offenses in many cases, often providing treatment rather than punishment. The most common types of problem-solving courts are drug treatment, mental health and veterans treatment courts, although there are other specialty court dockets that may vary by state or county. Through these problem-solving courts, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, mental health providers and community partners collaborate to provide treatment in the community as an alternative to being charged and possibly convicted of a criminal offense that could result in incarceration.

As of 2020, there are an estimated 477 adult mental health courts and 56 juvenile mental health courts, along with approximately 3,500 drug treatment courts and 461 veterans treatment courts in the U.S. Most programs are only for those who face misdemeanor or nonviolent felony charges, but more recently, jurisdictions have explored courts for additional charges.

Problem-solving courts can be life changing for people with mental illness or SUDs who become involved in the criminal justice system. Veterans courts and drug courts show similar outcomes for participants. Mental health courts have been associated with reduced recidivism and incarceration, and can even improve mental health outcomes. There is some evidence that including case management and connection to services, such as housing and employment, increase the likelihood of success for participants of specialty courts.

How We Talk About It:

  • People with mental illness and substance use disorders (SUDs) deserve help, not handcuffs. Yet, people with mental illness and SUDs are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.
  • About 2 in 5 people who are incarcerated have a history of mental illness, resulting in jails and prisons becoming unintended mental health facilities where they are often limited access to effective treatment.
  • NAMI is opposed to the continued criminalization of people with mental illness and believes that communities should invest in evidence-based solutions that help people with mental illness get on a path of recovery.
  • Specialty courts, like mental health treatment courts and veterans courts, are an evidence-based tool that can reduce the number of people with mental illness in our nation’s jails and prisons and focus on treatment instead of punishment.
  • As with all mental health treatment, specialty courts should work to engage the individual in their treatment so that it leads to long-term recovery beyond the period that the court is involved.
  • Funding and other resources should be available to support the operations of specialty court programs, especially services and supports like housing and employment programs, that are central to these courts successfully helping individuals.
  • NAMI believes that public policies should focus on investments in early intervention, comprehensive community mental health services, robust crisis response systems and justice diversion strategies to decriminalize people with mental illness and connect people to care.
  • Specialty courts are an important tool in helping people with mental illness while focusing on their health and preserving their dignity. Communities should invest in these courts to better meet the needs of people with mental illness.

What We’ve Done:

  • NAMI supports the Stepping Up Initiative which works with counties and other stakeholders to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails.
  • NAMI letter to House and Senate leadership advocating for the reauthorization of the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act (MIOTCRA), which funds mental health courts.
  • NAMI letter to the House and Senate Appropriations leadership advocating for increased funding for MIOTCRA.

NAMI HelpLine is available M-F, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. ET. Call 800-950-6264,
text “helpline” to 62640, or chat online. In a crisis, call or text 988 (24/7).