7 UDC/DCSL L. Rev. 143 (2003)
Criminalization of People with Mental Illnesses: The Role of Mental Health Courts in System Reform

handle is hein.journals/udclr7 and id is 151 raw text is: CRIMINALIZATION OF PEOPLE WITH MENTAL
ILLNESSES: THE ROLE OF MENTAL HEALTH COURTS
IN SYSTEM REFORM
Robert Bernstein, Ph.D.*
Tammy Seltzer, J.D.**
INTRODUCTION
In a recent report based on two years of study and meetings of hundreds of
individuals involved in criminal justice or mental health systems at the state and
local levels, the Council of State and Local Governments (CSG) found that
people with mental illness are falling through the cracks of this country's social
safety net and are landing in the criminal justice system at an alarming rate.1
The report noted that many people with mental illnesses are [o]verlooked,
turned away or intimidated by the mental health system and end up discon-
nected from community supports. 2 As a result, and not surprisingly, officials in
the criminal justice system have encountered people with mental illness with in-
creasing frequency.3
Contact with the criminal and juvenile justice systems obviously has significant
negative consequences for anyone who is subject to arrest, booking and incarcer-
ation. It can be doubly traumatic for people with mental illnesses, and the result-
ing criminal record can impede their later access to housing and mental health
services. Their increasing criminalization is generating concern among policy-
makers, criminal and juvenile justice administrators, families and advocates. A
great many of the individuals arrested are charged with only minor offenses for
which others are not usually subject to arrest.4 For most, the underlying issue is
their need for basic services and supports that public systems have failed to de-
liver in meaningful ways.5 In the past few years, this concern has led a number of
communities to establish some form of mental health court to process criminal
* Robert Bernstein is Executive Director of the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental
Health Law, Washington D.C.
** Tammy Seltzer is a staff attorney at the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health
Law, Washington D.C.
1 COUNCIL OF STATE GOVERNMENTS, CRIMINAL JUSTICE/MENTAL HEALTH CONSENSUS PRO-
JECT xii (June 2002).
2 Id. at xiii.
3 Id.
4 BUREAU OF JUSTICE STATISTICS, U.S. DEP'T OF JUSTICE, PUB. No. NCJ 174463, MENTAL
HEALTH TREATMENT OF INMATES AND PROBATIONERS 1 (July 1999). Over one-quarter of the in-
mates with mental illnesses in local jails were incarcerated for a public order offense. Id. at 4.
5 Id. at 7-9.

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