Feature

Congress has allocated $4 million to the U.S. Department of Justice to set up a pilot mental health courts program. The program gives nonviolent offenders with mental health problems treatment instead of jail time, trains law enforcement personnel and judges about mental health problems and treatment, and provides ongoing supervision for offenders sentenced to treatment.

"After years of effort, America is finally ready to begin treating people with mental illnesses instead of punishing them," says psychologist and U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, PhD (D-Ohio). "These courts are just the first step in easing the burden on law enforcement officials who are forced to serve as surrogate caretakers for mentally ill offenders, and give mentally ill individuals the help they need to avoid future run-ins with the law."

The Department of Justice is expected to release guidelines for the program and a call for grant proposals this spring. It will provide grants of up to $100,000 to states that want mental health courts, which are modeled after drug courts that sentence nonviolent offenders to drug treatment instead of jail. Several such programs have proven successful since Broward County, Fla., established the first mental health court in collaboration with Nova Southeastern University's Center for Psychological Studies.

The success of the first mental health courts, coupled with the grim statistic that 16 percent of prison and jail inmates suffer from mental illness, helped Strickland and Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) gain strong bipartisan support in 2000 for the law that established a Department of Justice pilot program. The legislation--America's Law Enforcement and Mental Health Project Act--gives Congress the option to appropriate up to $10 million annually for five years to run the pilot program.

The legislature's first chance to consider funding the new program came last fall when President Bush sent his budget recommendations to Congress. At that time, policy-makers were reluctant to fund new programs in light of growing economic constraints. So APA teamed up with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) as well as with several key lawmakers--Strickland, DeWine and Sens. Pete Domenci (R-N.M.) and Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.)--and staff from the Senate and House appropriations committees to secure the program's funding.

"With NAMI's effective grassroots advocacy network and APA's efforts on Capitol Hill, this legislative victory was really a team effort," explains Marilyn S. Richmond, head of APA's Government Relations Office. "We look forward to working with NAMI on other issues in the future."

Now that the mental health courts program has funding, notes Richmond, it will be easier to maintain and even gain Congress's financial support for the program in successive years--especially when the pilot program proves to be successful.