Although many states beat Michigan to the punch in creating mental health courts, officials from all branches of government should nevertheless be commended for finally embracing the concept.
Thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of people will benefit as a result.
It is well known that too many victims of mental illness end up in our criminal justice system when what they really needed was treatment, not punishment.
Mass shootings, like those at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Ct., appear to be persuading the general public that ignoring mental health as a policy issue can lead to horrible disasters.
The basic idea of a mental health court is to allow suspects suffering from mental illness to be able to appear before judges in a setting where their special conditions can be addressed.
Michigan has been methodical in its approach. It tested the idea of mental health courts in pilot counties, including Oakland and Macomb. Then officials empirically studied the outcomes.
A three-year evaluation of 10 Michigan mental health courts found that participants re-offend at significantly lower levels than comparable groups of offenders who do not participate in the mental health courts.
The evaluation, which was conducted by the State Court Administrative Office, found that one year after starting the program, mental health court participants’ recidivism rate was 300 percent lower compared to similar offenders. The difference persisted even after the courts no longer supervised the offenders: 30 months later, over a year after graduation, participants had a recidivism rate of 18.97 percent, compared to 43.22 percent of the comparison group.
Mental health court participants also enjoyed improved mental health, education and job outcomes, the survey found.
“... Results show that mental health courts have reduced recidivism, improved medication compliance, improved quality of life, and assisted participants in averaging over 300 days of continuous sobriety prior to graduation,” the SCAO report states. The mental health courts show good outcomes even for mentally ill offenders with substance abuse problems, who “are generally believed to be especially difficult to rehabilitate,” the report adds.
State Court Administrator Chad C. Schmucker said that the survey, which followed 331 mental health court graduates, provides “evidence that these programs really do work.”
“The central premise of mental health courts is that, by addressing the offender’s mental health issues, we can prevent future crimes and also help the offender become a contributing member of society,” Schmucker said.
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley last week signed a four-bill package of legislation allowing for the expansion of Michigan’s the program.
Calley was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder to serve as chairman of the Michigan Mental Health and Wellness Commission. He also is chairman of the Mental Health Diversion Council, which is housed within the Michigan Department of Community Health and provides recommendations for ensuring that offenders with mental health or substance abuse issues receive appropriate treatment rather than jail time. This legislation is a key component of the council’s plan.
“The most effective and humane way to deal with the problem of recidivism is through a comprehensive system of ‘smart justice’ that recognizes the connection between enforcement and prevention,” Calley said. “Mental health courts play a critical role in that system. They have demonstrated their value by ensuring public safety, easing the strain on our corrections system and providing mentally ill offenders with needed treatment. Allowing for the creation of additional mental health courts is both compassionate and cost-effective. Breaking the cycle in which jail becomes a revolving door for mentally ill offenders means a safer, healthier Michigan.”
Concerning the legislation, HB 4694, whose chief sponsor was Rep. Ken Cotter of Mt. Pleasant, sets forth relevant definitions for mental health courts and the process for creating a mental health court. A circuit or district court may adopt such a program by statute or through court rules.
HB 4695, whose chief sponsor was Rep. Gail Haines of Waterford, statutorily creates mental health courts in Michigan. It sets forth the requirements for someone to complete a mental health program. An individual participating in the program must abide by all court orders
HB 4696, whose chief sponsor was Rep. John Walsh of Livonia, requires an individual to plead guilty or no contest to their criminal charges in order to be admitted to the program.
HB 4697, whose chief sponsor was Rep. Margaret O’Brien of Kalamazoo County, deals with the collection of data and expenditure of funds. Under the bill, each mental health court must collect data on each individual participant and the entire program as required by the State Court Administrative Office.
“Mental health courts have proven to provide mentally ill individuals in the criminal justice system with a solution to their illness instead of incarceration,” Haines said. “The corrections system is not the most appropriate venue to address the mental health needs of individuals, and too often their needs go unattended. These reforms will save the taxpayers money, and more importantly provide the proper rehabilitation of offenders and allow them to become productive citizens.”
“This reform shows what good government can accomplish, especially when all three branches of government work as partners," Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert P. Young, Jr. said. "Michigan courts showed, through pilot programs, the worth of these mental health court programs in reducing recidivism and returning offenders to productive, responsible lives. The benefits — to the offenders, to their families, and to society — are far-ranging and profound. Mental health courts are changing lives."
Mental health courts, done the Michigan way, should benefit all of us. The executive, legislative and judicial branches of Michigan’s government deserve to be commended.