States Try Out Courts Tailored for Mentally Ill

In an effort to stop the repeated cycling of mentally ill people through courts and prisons, some states are setting up special courts for the mentally ill. The goal of judges, prosecutors and attorneys is to get treatment, housing and other kinds of support for the defendants.

Proponents say the new approach is more effective — and cheaper — than other options.

There are no national standards for mental health court policies. But there is an emerging consensus in favor of them. At a conference of state chief justices last January, representatives from all 50 states adopted a resolution endorsing the concept of mental health courts. And the Justice Department has allocated money to create more of them.

There are more than 120 mental health courts across the United States. They aren't distributed evenly. Ohio has 30, for example, while other states have none.

One argument in favor of the courts has to do with money.

While critics questions that a program that incorporates housing, counseling, medication, and employment assistance can be cheaper than standard prisons, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Stratton has an answer. Stratton, who led the drive for mental health courts in her state, says the statistics are actually very dramatic.

In Ohio, keeping someone in the mental health program costs taxpayers $30 a day, all-inclusive. But, "If you put them in prison, it's $60," Stratton says. "If you put them in a mental hospital, it's $451 a day. And if you put them in a general hospital it's $1,500 a day."

Supporters of mental health courts don't fit any one political or ideological profile. In Cincinnati, Judge Michael Sage is a former prosecutor. He calls himself a bedrock conservative, and he says nobody has ever argued that he's soft on crime.

"I make the argument when I have opposition, what is the right thing to do?" Sage says.

"And the right thing to do is to put them in this program and treat them. And to hopefully make sure they don't end up back on the streets committing crimes and doing the same things they were doing before."

One of the men being treated in Sage's program keeps a list of things he's grateful for each day as part of his therapy. When he showed up in court for his check-in, his case manager asked what was on his list that day. The client replied: Having a judge who understands mental illness.

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