03/28/07 © Florida Health NewsTaxpayers could save money by supporting development of more mental health courts in Florida, say supporters of a matching grant program now pending in the Legislature.
In such courts, persons who are charged with nonviolent crimes and who have mental illnesses are sentenced to community treatment programs. A recent study by the Rand Corp. found this reduces their jail time and their chances of re-arrest. (See Mental Health Courts Save Money, in right-hand column.)
Under bills now before the Legislature, state and county matching grants would be established to support local development of mental health courts and other programs to divert people with mental illnesses from jails.
There’s another important dividend to investing in mental health courts, according to Broward Judge Mark Speiser. “It’s about improving the quality of life of many people who have so desperately been lacking the help they need.”
Speiser, who pioneered the mental health court concept in Florida, said the grants would not only help communities establish mental health courts, but would also support treatment services to keep people with mental illnesses from “being dragged into the criminal justice system.”
HB 1477 by Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee and SB 542 by Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Ft. Lauderdale, both passed their first committee hurdles last week. Ausley’s bill is now in the House Healthcare Council, while the committee substitute for SB 542 is pending action in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
Broward County created one of the nation’s first mental health courts 1997. The specialized courts have gained in popularity as a way to stem the influx of people with mental illnesses into Florida’s jails and prisons.
The RAND study, which focused on the Allegheny County Mental Health Court in Pittsburgh, found that those sentenced there received more mental health services and spent fewer days in jail than they likely would have if they had been sentenced in the criminal court. They also spent fewer days in jail than they had after a prior arrest.
While there have been a number of studies examining the efficacy of mental health courts, Rand’s “Justice, Treatment, and Cost: An Evaluation of the Fiscal Impact of Allegheny County Mental Health Court,” is the first to look at the fiscal impact of a mental health court.
“This study examined the Allegheny County Mental Health Court in Pittsburgh, but the findings are likely applicable to many of the other approximately 120 mental health courts around the United States,” said M. Susan Ridgely, the lead researcher on the report and an attorney.
Researchers found that government costs to provide additional mental health services would be mostly offset by money saved from the reduced time spent in jail by mental health court participants.
Significantly, in the second year after sentencing the sustained decline in time that mental health court participants spent in jail in Allegheny County more than offset the costs to government of their continuing mental health treatment, the study concluded.
The RAND study was commissioned by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in 2005 in response to a bipartisan resolution approved by the Pennsylvania General Assembly that called attention to the costs associated with the growing numbers of people with mental illnesses involved in the criminal justice system.
The RAND study can be found at www.rand.org and at www.justicecenter.csg.org.