Mental Health Court – What is it & When is it Used?

September 2, 2021 Criminal Defense

Mental health courts are a special kind of court aimed at helping repeat offenders with untreated mental illness. Florida courts recognize that their jails and prisons are “not designed, equipped, or funded to deal with serious mental illness, so the creation of mental health court was a logical response.” Often, mental health courts will order offenders to attend treatment facilities for their mental health issues instead of incarcerating them. This alternative requires the collaboration of social service providers, medical experts, attorneys, and law enforcement. Currently, Florida has 33 mental health courts in operation.

The Benefits of Mental Health Court

Mental health courts, like drug courts, recognize that offenders may have underlying problems that need to be addressed in a manner that is more focused on their healing, so they do not reoffend. This relapse into criminal behavior is called recidivism, and preventing it is a major goal of these narrowly tailored court systems. By reducing recidivism, not only is the quality of life improved for the individual who is no longer breaking the law, but public safety as whole improves. In addition, this alternative to incarceration helps reduce court and corrections-related costs by lessening the financial burden imposed on the criminal justice system. Although mental health courts still require individuals to face punishments they may not want to adhere to, they allow mentally ill inmates access to resources they may not be able to afford otherwise.

How Does the Court Define Mental Illness?

Section 394.47892 of the Florida Statutes codifies mental health court programs. The statute recognizes that each county may fund a mental health court program in which “a defendant in the justice system assessed with a mental illness shall be processed in such a manner as to appropriately address the severity of the mental illness through treatment services tailored to the needs of the participant. In mental health court, “mental illness” is defined as “a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning.” It also includes co-occurring substance use disorders and serious mental illnesses. A serious mental illness is defined as “a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder that is diagnosable within the past year, is chronic, or long lasting, and results in a significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”

Entry into Mental Health Court

In order to qualify for mental health court, a defendant must:

  1. Be facing criminal charges that are appropriate for Mental Health Court;
  2. Be evaluated by a licensed mental health professional who finds the existence of mental illness that likely led to their criminal conduct and the defendant is amendable to treatment; and
  3. Enter the Mental Health Court voluntarily unless deemed incompetent and ordered to Mental Health Court.

Once a defendant enters mental health court, they must follow all the rules set in their treatment plan. This may include taking prescribed medication, attending therapy, or not consuming any controlled substances outside of their treatment plan. Non-compliance with the rules in their treatment plan can lead to the court implementing additional conditions as punishment, although the court will likely stray away from incarcerating the individual. 

The Mental Health Court System in Leon County

 The mental health court system in Leon County has been considered a model for other judicial circuits throughout Florida. The system differentiates between mental health procedures for misdemeanors and procedures for felonies. Leon County also permits Mental Health Pretrial Release if a defendant meets certain criteria and is not a risk to public safety. The Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), established in 2004, focuses on establishing and maintaining community partnerships so law enforcement officers can learn how to better assist individuals in the community suffering from mental illness. The main focus of CIT is to prevent inappropriate arrests of the mentally ill by enabling officers to direct them to community-based treatment. Furthermore, the training law enforcement officers receive allow them to gain pertinent knowledge in de-escalation techniques that help reduce violent incidents with mentally ill individuals. Over three hundred law enforcement personnel have graduated from CIT classes. In addition, Leon County’s mental health court involves a Mental Health Coordinator (MHC),  whose role centers around improving case processes, information availability, and problem resolution for cases that involve mentally ill individuals. The Mental Health Coordinator ensures that areas of improvement are always being identified to decrease or reduce delays in case processing, and therefore decrease costs of incarceration. Furthermore, the role of the Mental Health Coordinator is imperative as they help implement processes for early identification of mentally ill defendants, as well as assist defendants and their families in navigating the criminal justice system.

Tallahassee Criminal Defense Attorney

Mental health court can make all the difference for a mentally ill individual who has committed a crime. If you or a loved one want to ensure that the mental health court route is explored, rather than the incarceration route, you should consult with an experienced Tallahassee criminal defense attorney to explore your legal options. Don Pumphrey and the members of the legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm have decades of experience and will ensure your case is being handled in the appropriate court. Call us today at (850) 681-7777 or send an online message to discuss your case during an open and free consultation with an attorney in our legal team.

This article was written by Sarah Kamide

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