Legislation sponsored by Ted Strickland (D­Ohio) to create a national demonstration program for mental health courts was one of the few bills to sail through the 106th Congress with bipartisan support.

The new law will give the Department of Justice (DOJ) up to $10 million annually to make grants to state and local courts and governments for programs to divert mentally ill or mentally retarded offenders into voluntary outpatient or inpatient treatment. Experts estimate that 300,000 mentally ill people are in prisons and jails, making those facilities the most common institutions for the mentally ill in the nation.

Although there are a few mental health court programs around the nation, they are not nearly as widespread as the drug courts on which they are modeled. DOJ currently has a budget of about $40 million for drug court grants.

Arguing on the House floor as part of his push for the legislation, Strickland said that as "perhaps the only member of Congress who has ever worked in a maximum security prison, I have personally treated individuals who will live out the rest of their lives behind bars because they have committed crimes that they most likely would not have committed had they been able to receive adequate mental health treatment."

The new mental health court system would fund care only for people charged with misdemeanors or nonviolent offenses. In addition to treatment and other services, the law provides for training to help law enforcement and judicial personnel. The program would also establish centralized case management and continuing supervision for offenders, as well as training to help law enforcement and judicial personnel.

According to APA's Practice Directorate, the association influenced the bill in a way that could have importance beyond the mental health courts: The bill's sponsors accepted the definition of "mental illness" that the directorate recommended. The bill defines mental illness as a diagnosable mental, behavioral or emotional disorder that is of sufficient duration to meet diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and that has resulted in functional impairment that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.

"The comprehensive definition is important to this program, but it may also have a significant impact on future mental health legislation and federal definitions of mental illness," says Douglas Walter, JD, counsel for legislative and regulatory affairs in APA's Practice Directorate.

Walter also notes that the law offers opportunities for psychologists to provide services for these new programs.

DOJ is expected to begin writing the rules for the grants in the coming months and those will appear in the Federal Register. Funding for the grants must wait until the next federal budget year, which begins Oct. 1.