Mental Health Courts Weather Fiscal Storm

E-newsletter Issue #50 | July 8, 2010

Amidst one of the worst periods for states since the Great Depression, courts are not immune to the recession that’s wreaked havoc on state budgets. Even in tighter fiscal times, courts must continue to administer justice.

Specialty courts such as mental health courts are weathering the fiscal storm, according to articles in the June/August issue of Capitol Ideas magazine. The issue focuses on public safety and justice.   

When cuts are made to the mental health treatment services and mental health housing options, for example, judges are either limited or may take longer to connect a mental health court client with mental health services.

In New York, with its 23 mental health courts, Judge Judy Harris Kluger, chief of policy and planning for New York state’s unified court system, said when the state suffers from budget cuts, everything is affected.

“Everybody’s being cut in New York state,” Kluger said. “Like anything else, it may take us longer to place someone (and) there may not be as many choices in terms of where to place someone. It’s not as if the treatments don’t exist, but it’s just everybody’s cutting back so it’s going to have an impact on timing and also the variety of options that may be available.”

Idaho is going through something similar. “Our greatest challenge today is in light of the budget declines at the department of health and welfare. The behavioral health department is being cut dramatically, which will likely limit the amount of teams that are available in the communities to provide successful treatment to mental health court offenders,” said Patricia Tobias, Idaho’s administrative director of the courts.

That has Tobias and her counterparts examining what adjustments need to be made to weather the fiscal storm. They’ll likely have to decide if they will need to limit the number of offenders that can be admitted into mental health court, she said.

“We either have to find efficiencies in treatment delivery (to treat more people with the same resources) or limit offenders that can go into mental health courts,” Tobias said.

In Nevada, even though the state has been one of the hardest-hit in this recession, the state’s mental health court budget has so far escaped severe budget cuts unscathed, according to Nevada Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie. That’s because the legislature believes the mental health courts actually save money, according to Leslie, who is also an administrator for a mental health court, the state’s first located in the Second Judicial District Court.

Funding for mental health courts in Nevada is a specific line item in the state’s budget, funding 65 subsidized housing slots for the mentally ill, as well as case service coordinators and a supervisor who work only with mental health court clients, according to Leslie.

“Because in order to get into mental health court, you have to be a person with a severe mental illness,” Leslie said. “So all of those people would qualify for state services anyway, but by targeting the resources to those involved in the criminal justice system, it gives us the resources we need to stop them from recidivating.”

The mental health court saves the state in terms of emergency room visits, jail and prison time, Leslie said.

In 2009, the mental health court saved Leslie’s district more than $250,000 in avoided jail time for its 63 individuals who successfully completed the mental health court program, she said. The year before they entered the mental health court, members of the group cost the district more than $300,000 for 2,820 days in jail. But after entering the mental health court, the group spent only 569 days in jail—a whopping 80 percent decrease in time behind bars.

“And that’s one of the reasons, even though Nevada is one of the worst states in terms of the percent of revenue we’ve lost during the recession, so far, the mental health court item has not been cut because the legislators really understand—and the governor as well—that by cutting the mental health court budget, you’re increasing costs exponentially in the other budgets.” 

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