March 1, 2007
Special courts that sentence people with mental illness who are convicted of misdemeanors and low-level felonies to treatment instead of jail have the potential to save taxpayers money, according to a RAND Corporation study conducted for the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
“Justice, Treatment, and Cost: An Evaluation of the Fiscal Impact of Allegheny County Mental Health Court,” was funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare and the Staunton Farm Foundation. The study issued today by RAND, a nonprofit research organization, is the first to look at the fiscal impact of a mental health court anywhere in the United States.
“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.
The goals of the mental health courts are to link individuals convicted of non-violent crimes to community-based treatment for mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction when appropriate in order to reduce their jail time and to get them the help they need to reduce the chance they will commit new crimes.
“The RAND study confirms that mental health courts make good fiscal sense,” said Justice Center Charter Group Co-Chair and Texas Presiding Judge Sharon Keller. “By connecting people with mental illness who have committed low-level crimes with community-based treatment, we can make better use of our jails and tax dollars, increase public safety, and make our communities healthier.”
Mental health courts are specialized dockets that offer defendants with mental illnesses the opportunity to participate in court-supervised, community-based treatment in lieu of typical criminal sanctions. Because mental health courts are relatively new – in 1997 there were only four such courts in the United States – there have been only a handful of studies that measure the performance of such courts, and no studies that assess their costs until now.
The RAND study indicated that participants in the Allegheny County Mental Health Court program received more mental health services and spent fewer days in jail than they might have if they had been sentenced in the criminal court, and fewer days in jail than they spent related to a prior arrest.
Researchers found that government costs to provide additional mental health services would be mostly offset by money government saved because participants under mental health court supervision spent less time in jail in the first year after sentencing.
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.
To determine the fiscal impact of the Allegheny County Mental Health Court, RAND researchers gathered information on treatment, criminal justice and entitlement program costs from six state and Allegheny County public agencies. These costs were compared with the costs government would have had to spend on these participants during a comparable period had they gone through the normal criminal court system, and with their costs before and after an arrest in the years prior to their entry into the mental health court.
Across the United States, people with mental illnesses are over-represented in prisons and jails. According to one Justice Department study, while approximately 5 percent of the U.S. population had a serious mental illness, approximately 16 percent of people in jails and prisons had a serious mental illness. Governments around the nation spend millions of dollars each year incarcerating people with mental illness who often engage in relatively minor offenses, such as trespassing and disorderly conduct.
People with mental illnesses often cycle through the criminal justice system, becoming familiar faces in the nation's courtrooms. According to a 2006 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly a quarter of jail inmates who reported having a mental health problem had served three or more prior jail terms.
The RAND study was commissioned by the CSG 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.
In addition to Ridgely, other authors of the RAND study are John Engberg, Michael D. Greenberg, Susan Turner, Christine DeMartini and Jacob W. Dembosky. The study was produced by the RAND Safety and Justice Program, which conducts public policy research on corrections, policing, public safety and occupational safety.
The Allegheny County Mental Health Court was established in 2001. The court is a collaboration among the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, and the Offices of the Court of Common Pleas, District Attorney, Public Defender and Probation and Parole. The mental health court received a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2002 through the Bureau of Justice Assistance Mental Health Courts Program, for which the Council of State Governments Justice Center was a technical assistance provider.