In 2004, the federal government authorized $50 million for state initiatives to coordinate crime control efforts between the criminal justice and mental health systems. Some of that money was dedicated toward expansion of state mental health courts in an attempt to reduce the number of people with serious mental illness in jails and prisons.

Unlike traditional criminal courts, a mental health court is a nonadversarial problem-solving program that brings together all the stakeholders involved in a defendant’s criminal case and mental health care. A criminal defendant who agrees to participate in mental health court must participate in regular status hearings during which a judge reviews the defendant’s adherence to a court-imposed treatment plan and monitors his progress while on probation. The judge considers input from the prosecutor and the defense attorney, and also from the court’s social worker or case manager. A defendant who agrees to mental health court involvement is often placed on probation rather than sentenced to incarceration and is usually incarcerated for a shorter time pending trial.

As one would expect, freedom is a strong incentive to agree to mental health court conditions.

Although mental health courts have been in existence for 20 years, data about program efficacy have been mixed. Outcome studies have been hampered by lack of truly blind subject assignment, inadequate controls, and selection bias because many mental health courts exclude defendants charged with serious violent crimes or sex offenses. Also, mental health courts are voluntary programs with significant dropout rates. Nevertheless, proponents of mental health courts believe that they prevent crime, reduce violent offending, and serve to stabilize people with serious mental illness in the community.

In a study published recently in Psychiatric Services (2017 Aug 15. doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.201700107 ), researchers from North Carolina University, Raleigh, addressed the effect of mental health court involvement on criminal recidivism. Lowder et al. looked at 17 outcome studies of mental health court participants published between 2004 and 2015. These studies included 16,129 participants followed for a minimum of 1 year.

Most of the included studies defined recidivism as a new arrest. For the purpose of the meta-analysis, researchers also included any incarceration, conviction, or new charge. Each study also included a comparison group of defendants processed through usual criminal procedures. Included studies generally looked at reoffending in the year after entry into the program or in the year following exit from the program.

The meta-analysis found a small but significant reduction in criminal recidivism, although the degree of this effect varied considerably between studies, and the effect disappeared completely when only moderate and high-quality studies were considered.

These results should not surprise anyone. Crime is a complex human behavior mediated by more than just psychiatric issues. Poverty, stressful life events, and substance abuse all play a role. And as an outcome variable, an arrest is not a sensitive measure because many crimes go unreported. Defendants with lower rates of reoffending may simply have more forgiving victims; for people with mental illness, that victim is often a family member.

Fortunately, crime prevention is not the sole justification for mental health programs. There are also the intangible social benefits that aren’t measured in these studies – benefits like improved quality of life, restored relationships, and the ability to participate more fully in all the joys that life has to offer. For people with serious mental illness who graduate from mental health court, that’s the outcome that counts.

Dr. Hanson is a forensic psychiatrist and coauthor of “Committed: The Battle over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). The opinions expressed are those of the author only and do not represent those of any of Dr. Hanson’s employers or consultees, including the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Maryland Division of Correction.

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