You have no doubt heard about drug courts. They are designed to deal effectively with offenders who, because of their addiction, may benefit from alternatives to the types of sentences traditionally available in the criminal justice system. Instead of being jailed for drug possession, for example, a defendant may be able to report to drug court, complete a treatment program, and take other steps which could lead to the drug charge being dismissed. But a new type of court is emerging in some cities in Maricopa County. It is called “mental health court.”
If you have any doubt that mental health is an issue in the criminal justice system, you should be aware that a huge percentage of those in our country’s jails and prisons suffer from mental illness. According to one study, these issues affect more than 60% of the prisoners in local jails.
In Arizona, the process is available in some cases to those charged with misdemeanors, who have been diagnosed with certain mental illnesses and/or developmental disabilities. As of the present time, only four municipalities in the Valley operate mental health courts – Phoenix, Glendale, Tempe and Chandler. The rules are not the same in all the courts, and this can affect a defendant’s options. As in the case of drug courts, the program, where it is available, could allow a person charged with simple assault, for example, to attend an intensive treatment program. Upon successful completion, the misdemeanor charge would be dropped. It is estimated that most people who participate in the program spend between six months and two years in mental health court.
Availability of treatment for the mentally ill
While the concept of mental health courts is relatively new, some difficulties have already shown up in the system. First, since the system is established on a city-by-city basis, there is not necessarily the type of consistency one might expect if it were handled on a more centralized basis. Second, and more importantly, we think, is the problem of making these courts more available geographically than they currently are.
The problems associated with mental illness include not only behavioral issues leading to arrests. They also include frequent changes of residence, and in some cases homelessness. As a result, with the availability of the program tied to the particular location where an offense is committed, it may or may not be the location (or even near the location) where the person is living at the time.
Don’t get us wrong. We think the idea of mental health courts is a good one, and long overdue. What we’re saying, however, is that if we really want to make a dent in the problem, a unified approach covering the entire state would be advisable.
Law Offices of David A. Black
40 North Central Avenue #1850
Phoenix, AZ 85004