Mental Health Courts from A to Z

CSG Justice Center Training Curriculum Blends Online Learning, Live Activities

Story by Jacqueline Cheney

Story appears in the 2013 Jan./Feb. issue of Capitol Ideas 

Research shows people with mental illnesses and co-occurring substance abuse issues enter local jails three to six times more often than the general population.

That creates a challenge for the nation’s criminal courts.

“The cycling of individuals with mental illnesses through our criminal justice system is a critical issue with implications for public safety, health and expenditures, not to mention the lives of millions across the country,” said Ruby Qazilbash, associate deputy director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the U.S. Department of Justice.

The use of mental health courts, which combine mental health and, often, substance use treatment with court supervision, is a popular approach to address this issue. Some 300 jurisdictions have launched new programs since 2000. Nearly every state has a mental health court.

Developing a Mental Health Court

The growing reliance on these specialty courts has created a need for an accessible training resource. Recognizing that need, the Bureau of Justice Assistance commissioned The Council of State Governments Justice Center to build on its previous work and develop a curriculum on mental health courts.

“By partnering with the CSG Justice Center on this project, we hope to provide state leaders with an affordable, accessible training option that combines the best of available research and practice in this area in a format that is flexible to the needs of diverse jurisdictions,” said Qazilbash.

The result of that partnership is a training curriculum called Developing a Mental Health Court. The curriculum features self-paced online presentations and quizzes, group activities and additional resources that translate the experience of experts and practitioners into engaging learning materials.

The free curriculum also features multimedia content that includes interviews with a range of experts, as well as a multi-part video case study following a real mental health court team through common situations. The project was guided by a steering committee of national organizations and practitioners from mental health courts around the country.

While the curriculum is a comprehensive resource on starting a mental health court, it also can be adapted for new team members or as a tune-up for existing programs. Introductory lessons on criminal justice and behavioral health are useful for any collaboration between these disciplines, with content on assessment of criminogenic needs—that is characteristics or circumstances research shows are associated with criminal behavior—and mental health, as well as introductions to these systems.

“This curriculum provides the important fundamentals, and it links us to existing research and innovative programming,” said Steven Canterbury, administrative director of West Virginia’s Administrative Office of the Courts and a CSG Justice Center board member. “It also offers flexibility to tailor the content based on our own state rules and local resources.”

The curriculum begins with material on the mental health court model and how to consider whether a mental health court is appropriate for a given community.

“We aimed to give policymakers the tools to make decisions informed by research and practice, whether it is the decision to start a mental health court, develop another program, or start meeting regularly and improve information sharing,” said Hallie Fader-Towe, director of the CSG Justice Center’s Courts Program.

The Justice Center also worked with the Center for Social Innovation on the training strategy.

“Their expertise in adult education and blended learning helped us develop an approach that shares national expertise through online presentations, while using live activities to apply the concepts locally,” said Fader-Towe.

At a time when budget constraints affect every branch of government, the curriculum provides a great value to state and local jurisdictions.

“We’re always looking for cost-effective ways to bring national expertise to West Virginia, and this free curriculum provides a means to do so without paying for dozens of flights and conferences,” said Canterbury.

Piloting the Curriculum

State-level coordinators in Colorado and Delaware piloted the curriculum, as did local teams in Iowa and Washington. These pilot sites included urban, rural and suburban jurisdictions with varying experience with problem-solving courts and criminal justice/mental health collaboration.

With the current economic climate limiting opportunities for face-to-face training, Colorado was eager to use the curriculum, State Problem-Solving Court Coordinator Brenidy Rice said. Rice considers the curriculum’s blend of online and live components “the best way to handle the budget limitations, as well as people’s busy schedules.” The varied formats—including audio, video and graphics—“can meet the needs of several types of learners,” she said.

Rice piloted the curriculum in five jurisdictions throughout Colorado, tailoring it to each team.

“Each was unique in its needs and stage in the planning process,” said Rice.

One team in the early stages of starting a program used the curriculum to complete its policies and procedures.

Another team that was already maintaining a specialized probation caseload for individuals with mental illnesses was not sure how its jurisdiction could benefit from a problem-solving court.

Taking the curriculum’s suggestion, the team reviewed local data to determine if additional programs would be beneficial. After the data revealed that individuals with mental illnesses were still spending more time in jail and faring worse on probation than others, the team decided to establish a mental health court.

“Mental health courts are one of the fastest-growing types of problem-solving courts in the state right now, but there isn’t as much information available on these programs as there is on drug courts, which have been around for twice as long,” Rice said. “Developing a Mental Health Court is a great resource in helping us fill that need.”

Creating the Curriculum
Developing a Mental Health Court includes input from experts involved in programs in more than 20 states.

The steering committee included representation from the National Center for State Courts, the National Judicial College, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s GAINS Center, the Center for Court Innovation, the American Probation and Parole Association, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Justice Management Institute, the National Drug Court Institute, and the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. Committee members came from California, Illinois, New York and Ohio.

Problem-solving court coordinators and judicial educators from Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, New York, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia contributed to the curriculum’s trainers’ materials.

Get the Curriculum

Developing a Mental Health Court: An Interdisciplinary Curriculum is available, free of charge, at

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