The New York Daily News has a very interesting feature on the Manhattan’s specialized mental health court, and the special challenges facing those who would like to use it during this pandemic-stricken era.
Only a handful of cases ever make it to Manhattan Mental Health Court, according to data provided by the district attorney — and that was before COVID-19 ground the city to a halt. On Friday, after tentatively opening some courtrooms for trials and hearings over the summer, the Office of Court Administration once again shut down most in-person proceedings, citing a recent surge in the virus.
Even pre-COVID, the mental health court moved at a plodding pace. In 2018, the office received 74 requests for referral. Of those, prosecutors consented to refer 43 cases — about 58% — and declined to refer the rest. In 2019, the office got 136 requests. They consented to 46 cases — about 34% — and declined to refer the remaining 90.
The office referred three cases this year before the court shutdown in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Twelve cases were not referred to mental health court, though two of those were referred to another diversion court. Thirty-five are pending.
The whole story is worth the read, especially for those interested in how specialized state courts can make a difference in people’s lives — if they are accessible.
It’s State of the Judiciary season all across the United States, with chief justices traveling to state legislatures to lay out the success and challenges of their respective judicial branches. In Missouri, Chief Justice Zel Fischer used this year’s address to seek support for additional treatment courts — state courts specially designed to work with offenders who have drug addictions. Fifteen Missouri counties currently lack a treatment court.
The growth of specialized courts like treatment courts across the country reflect growing sense that the court system can better address criminal and other socially undesirable activity by becoming more involved in preventing its root causes. This is a divergence from the traditional role of the courts, designed only to neutrally determine guilt or liability in an individual case. Courts are increasingly seen as a component of a larger network of public and private organizations that can, collectively, address such issues with more depth. Hopefully the impact of specialized courts will be the subject of further study — and if a positive impact is shown, court systems and legislatures will be willing to further experiment with the systemic structure of state judicial systems.
Here is a remarkable article on the Opiate Crisis Intervention Court in New York, presided over by Judge Craig Hannah. The court hears a variety of cases involving parties with opiate addiction, with an emphasis on getting them treatment. It’s a great example of state courts structuring themselves in creative ways to respond to social needs.
Many states have established “problem-solving courts” over the last two decades. These are specialized courts whose mission goes beyond the standard determination of guilt and punishment, and instead seeks to address the causes underlying problematic behaviors. Across the country, problem-solving courts have been established to deal with (among other things) drug offenses, mental health issues, sex offenses, truancy, and gun violence.
The State of Delaware has recently undertaken its first internal evaluation of its problem-solving courts, and is now looking to streamline and consolidate some of their work. In particular, the public report describing the evaluation recommends “a unified statewide treatment court.” Unifying the state’s problem-solving courts, the report suggested, would also allow the judiciary and court administrators to address treatment and training issues more efficiently.
As the state courts continues to expand their reach beyond a traditional, arms-length adjudicative role, these types of analyses will be all the more important. Delaware is said to be working with the National Center for State Courts and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals on this project, and hopefully the lessons gleaned from the project will work their way to other state court systems as well.