Mentally Ill Need Support, Not Specialized Courts


Services providers are meeting with Cuyahoga County judicial officials to craft a protocol for a mental health court locally. These courts would be a part of the Municipal Court system so they would handle people with misdemeanors. They would most likely only be available to non-violent first time offenders who are identified as possibly mentally ill. This small population would be identified by a court social worker from a brief interview before people enter the court for pre-trial pleadings on the third floor of the justice center.

Currently Akron is experimenting with the Mental Health Court system, as are communities throughout the United States. While the courts are crowded with those with a mental illness because of societal neglect, we cannot find reason to support the creation of a Mental Health Court in Cuyahoga County. We found that the eventual outcome of an individual entering the Mental Health Court is that they will agree to remain compliant with a treatment plan in order to avoid jail. While it should be the goal of every social service provider to encourage those with a mental illness to follow a treatment plan through the development of trusting relationships, we cannot use the criminal justice system to force treatment.

The Editors of the Grapevine are not sure that an attorney would be working in the client’s best interest by advocating that a homeless person enter the Mental Health Court. If a mentally ill person pled guilty to a misdemeanor like disorderly conduct or public urination they would get a minor punishment (usually time served) in the criminal justice system. If they entered the Mental Health Court, they would enter a treatment plan that could last for years. Non-compliance with the plan would mean that they could return to the criminal justice system. No effective legal counsel would recommend entering the Mental Health Court and the possible years of compliance, forced medication, and the fear of returning to jail if they deviate from the treatment plan laid out by "professionals." A lawyer that recommends the Mental Health Court would not be considering the best interest of the individual, but they are more interested in the best interest of the community and the judicial system.

Based on recent experiences with the providers in the mental health community who were willing to go along with the sweeping of homeless people, we feel that there is a danger that service providers will find it easier to serve those homeless mentally ill people in the Mental Health Courts and withdraw funding and resources from outreach teams. It is expensive and time consuming to engage homeless people with a mental illness on the street and build a trusting relationship with those people attempting to drop out of society. It would be a better allocation of resources to wait until those same homeless mentally ill individuals are arrested and serve them through the Mental Health Court. The editors do not believe that the criminal justice system should be involved in the allocation of social support services. We do not see evidence on a national level that long term mental health stability can be forced on an individual through the courts.

There are other examples of specialized courts for specialized criminals including recent experiences with Drug Courts. What has happened in some of these cities is that the specialized courts, Drug and Mental Health, reserve all the crisis beds in the community for the courts. Since the creation of these specialized courts do not usually mean the creation of additional crisis beds, those who voluntarily seek treatment are denied because the beds are reserved for the court system. We should not create a situation in which an individual has to be arrested in order to get mental health treatment.

Finally, we do not think that forcing someone to undergo treatment with the threat of jail time is the proper path to engaging an individual in a treatment plan. The mental health system was constructed to act as individual advocates for those suffering from a mental illness. What a betrayal of those they are serving by forcing them into treatment. Those suffering with a mental illness were betrayed when they were promised community wrap around services after the asylums were closed, and now since that promise was never funded we are arresting the mentally ill and forcing treatment on them. We need to stop using the criminal justice system to control our population. There are too many mentally ill people in the criminal justice system, but instead of solving that problem we are forcing people into compliance. How about figuring out a way to provide complete wrap around services for those with a mental illness so that they never have to enter the criminal justice system. That $1.6 trillion surplus would go a long way to solving this problem in our country.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #46-2001