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Special Treatment: A One-of-a-kind Court May Offer the Best Hope for Steering Nonviolent Mentally Ill Defendants Into Care Instead of Jail

NCJ Number
ABA Journal Volume: 84 (June 1998) Issue: Dated: Pages: 20-22
D Baker
Date Published
Broward County (Fla.) has a mental health court as a special division of the criminal court to handle cases involving nonviolent misdemeanor defendants who are identified as having mental illness or retardation.
The court established a year ago, was the first in the country created specifically to balance issues of treatment and punishment for these defendants. The court is being recognized as a model for other jurisdictions. The first year has also revealed that a specialized court remains limited in its ability to solve problems present in the justice system for more than a century. An estimated 7.2 percent of inmates in 1992 were reported to suffer from serious mental illness. Their psychiatric and medical conditions often worsen when they are jailed, because more than 20 percent of jails have access to any mental health services and most provide little or not training on treating persons with mental illness. The Broward County court holds hearings to assess the defendants' conditions, decide whether they are competent to face charges, and consider the need for immediate psychiatric treatment or other community-based mental health services. The judge has a background in mental health and disabilities law. The costs of short-term crisis stabilization and other services for mentally ill persons are a concern, but incarceration is more expensive than treatment over the long term due to the probability that an untreated individual will return to jail several times a year. The court serves as an important first step in identifying individuals in the criminal justice system in need of mental health care. Case example and photographs