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 The Allegheny County Mental Health Court Makes Sense and Saves Dollars

The content below may contain dated material as it was prepared for the media in advance of Pittsburgh’s hosting of the G20 in March 2010.  

In 2001, the Allegheny County Jail stood as the third largest mental health facility in southwestern Pennsylvania when inmates with mental illness accounted for 20-25 percent of the jail population.

Several concerns supported employing a special Mental Health Court to deal with offenders with mental illness. First, persons with mental illness were kept in jail longer before their trials than other offenders because of an inability to post high bail bonds and a general fear of this population. Second, many critical supports that were needed to escape the pull of recidivism were commonly lost during incarceration including medical, financial and housing.

Mental Health Court (MHC) is based on the more familiar Drug Court model. Both offer offenders with behavioral health diagnoses a special docket of criminal court that diverts them to treatment rather than incarceration with several critical goals: maintaining effective communications among the human services, behavioral health and criminal justice systems; slowing the revolving door of recidivism; maintaining treatment, housing, benefits supervision and community support services for the individuals; and supporting public safety.

On March 1, 2007 the RAND Corporation released results of its research study, Justice, Treatment, and Cost – An Evaluation of the Fiscal Impact of Allegheny County Mental Health Court. When all the data was crunched, the picture was encouraging. The Allegheny County Mental Health Court was found to be a fiscally responsible alternative to traditional incarceration for persons with mental illness who, because of committing non-violent crimes, get involved in the criminal justice system. The news was applauded by those who have believed for more than a decade that the concept of Mental Health Court was one that favored not only social responsibility but also community safety.

Success is not only evident in fiscal terms. US News and World Report visited MHC and gave readers an unvarnished glimpse into the lives of two MHC participants. Individuals who have participated in MHC are more than willing to tell their stories of futility-turned-to-hope. The Department of Human Services (DHS) captured two such stories in an issue of DHS: Making an Impact. Another individual sent DHS Director Marc Cherna an anonymous testimony of his experience as a participant in MHC. In April 2009, PBS FRONTLINE produced RELEASED, a documentary that compared Allegheny County’s treatment of persons with histories of both criminal activity and mental illness to that of neighboring jurisdictions.