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August 28, 2006

States Try Out Courts Tailored for Mentally Ill

National Public Radio has had a good program recently on Mental Health Courts that are being implemented in the US. NPR reports that "In many states around the country, judges have set up special courts to deal with defendants who have severe mental illnesses. The goal is to stop people from repeatedly cycling through the courts and jails and transform them into productive members of society."

Following is a brief excerpt from the program:

SHAPIRO: There are more than 120 mental health courts across the country. They aren't distributed evenly. Ohio has thirty, for example, while other states have none. And although they've become widespread, researchers have only completed local studies of their effectiveness. Dr. Henry Steadman is president of Policy Research Associates in Delmar, New York, and he recently began a national study of whether mental health courts work and for whom.

Dr. HENRY STEADMAN (Policy Research Associates): I think at this point it looks like it's something that can be very beneficial for all parties involved.

SHAPIRO: But he says there's still a lot more research to be done.
Dr. STEADMAN: I believe that for many of the people coming through the mental health courts, these are a wonderful intervention that will save the community money, will, in fact, provide a better quality of life and will, in fact, benefit the people enrolled in the mental health courts. And the key is just to refine that a little bit so that it isn't used for people with whom it will not be as effective.

SHAPIRO: The money argument can be counterintuitive. How can a program that incorporates housing, counseling, medication and employment assistance be cheaper than just locking someone up?

Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn 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.

Ms. EVELYN STRATTON (Ohio Supreme Court Justice): If you put them in prison, it's $60 a day. If you put them in a mental hospital, it's $451 day. And if you put them in a general hospital, it's $1500 a day.

SHAPIRO: She says those numbers have convinced many a local politician to fund this program. But some mental health advocates aren't sure it's a good idea. Ira Burnham is legal director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C. He says yes, mentally ill people need help. But do they really have to be arrested to get it?

Listen to the entire program at NPR:

Mental Health Courts - discussion on NPR

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