Four States Join Mental Health Justice Initiative

NEW YORK — The Council of State Governments Justice Center selected the leading judges of Delaware, Idaho, New Hampshire and Wisconsin to participate in the Chief Justices’ Criminal Justice Mental Health Leadership Initiative.

Part of the Council of State Governments’ Criminal Justice Mental Health Consensus Project, the leadership initiative was developed to help State Supreme Court justices improve criminal justice system responses to individuals with mental health issues.

“Each state’s chief justice has demonstrated a commitment to addressing the needs of people with mental illnesses, and we are pleased to be able to invite these states to participate,” says Judge Steven Leifman, advisor to the Florida Supreme Court on criminal justice and mental health issues. Leifman co-chaired the advisory board that reviewed state submissions.

The chief justices of Delaware, Idaho, New Hampshire and Wisconsin are tasked with establishing a cohesive structure to support statewide initiatives to improve outcomes for mentally ill individuals that enter the criminal justice system in their respective states.

“The application process was very competitive and we are confident that all four task forces will design and implement successful strategies,” Leifman says.

Justices from California, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Nevada, Texas and Vermont participated in the first year of the national project, which was launched in 2007.

The number of individuals with mental health issues coming into contact with the criminal justice system has been on the increase for the past several decades, experts say.

The mental illness rate among male inmates is four times that of men in the U.S. general population, while the prevalence of mental illness among female inmates is eight times that of women in the general population, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

More than 50 percent of all prison and jail inmates in the Untied States were found to have mental health problems, according to a 2006 study by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Previous prevalence estimates of serious mental illnesses among the corrections population range from 8 to 16 percent.

The prevalence of mental disorders among youth offenders in juvenile justice facilities is even higher than that of the incarcerated adult male population, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics’ estimates.

A Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine study of juvenile offenders in Chicago found almost 70 percent of juvenile offenders suffered from at least one mental disorder.

More than 40 percent of juvenile offenders met the criteria for two or more disorders, according to the study published in the September issue of Psychiatric Services, a Journal of the American Psychiatric Association.

Mental health issues are primarily associated with a history of violence and past criminal activity, according to the 2006 BJS study.

The upward trend in mentally ill offenders and the sustained shift from the mental health system to the criminal justice system as the default venue for dealing with individuals with mental health issues have significant implications for the criminal justice system, offender outcomes, public safety and government spending, experts say.

“To address this complex issue, there must be extensive collaboration among a state’s systems,” says Judge Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

The 11 leadership initiative task forces will focus on the operation of their respective state’s criminal court system and its interaction with the state mental health system as they seek to implement statewide strategies for improved responses and outcomes.

“The chief justice is often uniquely positioned to convene key leaders to develop bipartisan, coordinated strategies,” Keller says. Keller is chair of the Justice Center’s board of directors and led the Texas leadership initiative task force in 2007.

The leadership initiative was developed by the Justice Center in collaboration with the Conference of Chief Justices and the Center for Mental Health Services’ National GAINS Center in the Justice System.

The CMHS provides information, consultation and technical assistance to state and local governments to create integrated systems of mental health and substance abuse services for individuals in contact with the criminal justice system.

CMHS and the National GAINS Center, which is composed of the Technical Assistance and Policy Analysis Center for Jail Diversion and the Center for Evidence-Based Programs in the Justice System, are funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.