July 19, 2007

Rand study: Mental health court cost-effective

People with mental illnesses are vastly overrepresented in prisons and jails.

In a promising attempt to rectify this problem, mental health courts have sprung up around the United States in the past decade. These courts are designed to divert nonviolent, mentally ill offenders out of their pattern of cyclical incarceration through individually tailored treatment programs.

In 1997, there were only four such courts nationwide. In 2004, the courts got a boost with passage of the federal Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act, which authorized $50 million for states and counties to establish more mental health courts and provide other mental health resources to prisoners. Now, there are dozens of courts. As I write, one is even getting off the ground in my own county (Contra Costa County, California).

Because the courts are relatively new, they have not been widely studied. Now, the imminently respectable Rand Corporation has weighed in with a new study on the fiscal side of one such court, the Allegheny County Mental Health Court in Pennsylvania.

The study’s bottom-line conclusion: Sending people to treatment instead of to jail has the potential to save the taxpayers money.

The full report, “Justice, Treatment, and Cost,” is available online.

For more information on the movement toward reducing prison expansion through model prisoner reentry programs, see the web site of the Re-Entry Policy Council, a public/private partnership involving the U.S. departments of Justice, Labor, and Health.