Minnesota Must Get Serious About Mental Health Courts

It’s time for state-level discussions in Minnesota about funding mental health courts.

I recently attended an excellent conference about the criminalization of mental illness. Even though it was more geared to mental health practitioners, I went as a parent because Ramsey County recently denied participation in their excellent mental health court to my son who has schizo-affective disorder. Everyone familiar with his case said he should have been a classic shoe-in for the court. His co-defendant for the exact same property crime was accepted. The reason? She lives in Ramsey County, while our son lives in Hennepin County.

Before the speakers began, I was pleased to find many useful fact sheets in our registration folder, prepared by the Hamline University Center for Justice and Law. One cited the well-known fact that jails and prisons are the #1 most widely used mental institutions in the United States. In 44 states, a jail or prison holds more people with a mental illness than the largest remaining state psychiatric hospital. In Minnesota, the Hennepin County jail easily fills that role.

One fact sheet suggested a solution to this problem: use diversion programs. Individuals who have been convicted of a crime and have a mental illness in traditional courts reoffend at a rate of 3 times higher than those who participate in mental health courts. Jails save approximately $9,000 per mental health court participant over a two-year period due to the development of mental health courts. Even so, only three of Minnesota’s 87 counties have a mental health court.

I listened attentively when a Ramsey County judge spoke about their excellent mental health court. She eloquently described their services and results for those who are lucky enough to be accepted to their court. When she was asked why Ramsey County only accepts people who live in their county, she acknowledged that they only accept 30 people per year, despite many more who would qualify. She received applause when she said they wanted to make sure they could afford to do a good job with those they did accept. I did not join in the applause.

On further investigation, I found that Ramsey County mental health court receives no state or county funding, but instead relies solely on grants. Neighboring Hennepin County mental health court does receive some county funding and also accepts people who reside in other counties, including Ramsey.

Hamline acknowledged this problem in one of their fact sheets. They said it’s a challenge that there is no uniform set of guidelines and criteria for mental health courts, and this leads to discrepancy between courts and individual cases. Also, the courts set their own requirements for acceptance into their programs, they said, leading to exclusionary practices in many programs. Even the fee for mental health court can differ between cities and counties, potentially prohibiting someone from receiving services, due to financial barriers.

It’s time for those state-level discussions.

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