The Houston Chronicle reports that Harris County judges have voted to get in line with the growing number of mental health courts nationwide ("Harris Judges Vote for Felony Mental Health Court," January 8, 2009).
According to the Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project, "Mental health courts (MHCs) are specialized dockets that link defendants with mental illnesses to court-supervised, community-based treatment in lieu of traditional case processing." In The Essential Elements of a Mental Health Court, the authors note that "Mental health courts are a recent and rapidly expanding phenomenon. In the late 1990s only a few such courts were accepting cases. Since then, more than 150 others have been established, and dozens more are being planned." Other mental health courts in Texas have been established in Smith, Bexar, El Paso, Tarrant, and Dallas Counties.
Here's the full article:
Harris County's criminal district judges voted Wednesday to designate a full-time felony mental health court, which will likely focus on defendants diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression.
State District Judge Jan Krocker will preside over the court, the first of its kind in Harris County. A start date has not been determined. Funding is still needed, she said. She did not give an estimate, saying details must still be finalized.
About 30 percent of the defendants who come through Harris County's criminal courts have a mental illness, Krocker said. She expects many of those defendants also will need treatment for substance abuse.
"It is a tragedy both for society and the defendant when mentally ill offenders go through the system without treatment," Krocker said Wednesday. "The mental health court can rewrite some very sad stories so there are great endings."
Mental Health Association of Greater Houston President and CEO Betsy Schwartz lauded the move, noting that mental health courts have been in place for years in other parts of the country and have proved successful.
She said she hopes that the court will prevent some offenders from "recycling" through the system.
"Individuals with serious mental illness can be matched with case management and services in the mental health court and the judge will know them as a person, have a relationship with them," Schwartz said.
The new court might also help some veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder when they return to Houston from Iraq, Krocker said.
"We need to be prepared for the possibility that (some) may be mentally ill and homeless and may end up in the criminal justice system," Krocker said.
Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos, who recently took office, applauded the judges' decision. Lykos emphasized mental health treatment as a theme in her election campaign last year.
"I think this is a major initiative," Lykos said Wednesday. "The criminal justice system is the last institution available to deal with these individuals. It's the institution of last resort. This is a moral issue. It's a dollars and cents issue."
Krocker plans for mentally ill defendants to be assigned to her court immediately after they are charged with a criminal offense if they have previously been diagnosed with a mental illness in the criminal justice system through the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County.
Krocker also proposed that mentally ill defendants could be transferred to her court from another felony court if the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney involved in the case agree.
More than 7,700 defendants received psychotropic medications in Harris County in 2007, Krocker said. The Harris County Jail is the county's largest psychiatric hospital.
The court designation is one step in helping the mentally ill, Schwartz said, adding that other components must be in place.
"It can only be as good as the community support services that are available," Schwartz said.
Earlier posts on mental health courts are available here and here. More information is available from the Consensus Project.