Judges must divert more cases to mental health treatment, task force says

(Reuters) – Court systems in the U.S. need to do a better job of diverting individuals in some cases to mental health treatment and to establish new best practices for cases involving those with behavioral health issues, according to a task force that spent the last two years studying mental health in the judicial system.

The National Center for State Courts, creator of the task force, said that at least 70% of people in the country’s jails and prisons have been diagnosed with a mental illness or substance-use disorder, and people with mental illness are 10 times more likely to be put in a jail than a hospital.

The task force said in a report released on Tuesday that judges are in a unique position to steer individuals to pre-established resources that may help them with their mental health issues.

The report said that individuals charged with misdemeanors and low-risk crimes often wait in jail for extended periods of time for mental health evaluations and should be diverted to treatment directly. It also said courts should prioritize timely evaluations pertaining to competency to stand trial evaluations.

In addition, the report recommended extending involuntary treatment to include not only those who “present an imminent risk of harm” but also to those who show other signs of mental illness. These interventions may prevent homelessness, poverty and adjacent health issues, the report said.

The National Judicial Task Force to Examine State Courts’ Responses to Mental Illness was created in March 2020 by the National Center for State Courts, a nonprofit with a mission to improve court systems in the U.S.

The task force is made up of a group of judges, lawyers and community members, including co-chairs Chief Justice Paul Reiber of Vermont and Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks of New York.

“I wish that the mental health system did a better job at catching the folks who end up involved in the court system on the front end, but the reality is, there are a lot of gaps in services,” said Sarah Vinson, interim chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Morehouse School of Medicine, during a virtual presentation about the report Tuesday.

The report also recommended that state and local courts establish their own commissions to address the specific needs of their communities and create a solid foundation for change.

Over the course of the two years, the task force published almost 100 resources to aid in the implementation of its recommendations.

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Chinekwu Osakwe

Thomson Reuters

Chinekwu Osakwe covers legal industry news with a focus on midsize law firms. Reach her at Chinekwu.osakwe@thomsonreuters.com.