Mental health support in the criminal justice system

Utilizing Diversion Programs and Specialty Courts in America

Cara M. McMenamin is the assistant district attorney for Montgomery county in the state of Pennsylvania. Cara specializes in Mental Health & Competency, Drug Treatment Court, Behavioral Health Court and Veterans Treatment Court all for the county. Cara wants to make sure that people with mental health issues are getting the justice they deserve instead of being incarcerated, where they will most likely continue to struggle. Cara talks about how behavioral courts and diversion programs can change our criminal justice system and the way we view people with mental health issues. 

Produced and Edited by Jason Archer

Jail Diversion and the amazing outcome

By Jason Archer

Over one third of people incarcerated in state and federal prison have a diagnosed mental health concern. If we help provide these individuals with treatment, can we diminish the overall number of incarcerated individuals within the prison system?  Criminal justice systems face significant challenges in addressing the mental health needs of the people they serve . Without treatment, mental health individuals can continue to struggle and can possibly worsen, resulting in the increase of further involvement in the criminal justice system. To achieve better results for both the criminal justice system and individuals struggling with mental health, legislators around the country are considering and enacting policies to enhance access to mental health services at multiple stages in the criminal justice system. One of the focuses is using diversion programs.  A diversion program is a form of sentence in which the criminal offender joins a rehabilitation program so that an individual can learn life skills so their illness does not have them wind up back in the justice system.

Diversion programs can vary in their format, yet the main focus of all of the programs is that someone charged with a crime accomplishes certain terms of a determined agreement instead of serving out a criminal sentence. This includes completing treatment, paying restitution or participating in community service. These different requirements are in place of getting sent to jail and receiving a record for the crimes committed. Diversion programs are especially beneficial for those suffering with mental health issues. Diversion programs are able to help lower the rate of reoffending.  These programs allow offenders to keep their jobs, to have support from those around them, to avoid the trauma that would stem from being in prison and move away from the stigma of a record. All of these different benefits of diversion programs can greatly lower the risk of reoffending and offer better support for those struggling with mental health than they would receive in prison

Speciality courts will help guide defendants with mental health needs away from the traditional criminal justice process. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Mental health courts, “coordinate the expertise of judicial officers, prosecutors, defense counsel, and treatment and supervision personnel to address defendants’ mental health needs, while still holding them accountable for their actions”. These courts can be used before or after a guilty plea, and completing the programs set for the individuals can result in clearing a defendant's record. The first speciality court was created in 1997 and now there are more than 300 across the US. Laws in at least 18 states authorize mental health courts. The laws create new or expand existing programs, set eligibility requirements, employ best practices and grant authority for administering the program.

Diversion is a beneficial program that should be used more frequently in the United States. If the criminal justice system spent more time focusing on the issues that led people to offend, instead of the offense itself, we could lower the recidivism rate and allow these individuals to grow and learn. This is undeniably more successful than warehousing people in a jail cell before turning them back onto the streets where they will continue to struggle without help. Looking at Pennsylvania's mental health courts, 61% of individuals that take part in these programs successfully graduate from the program.  Among these graduates there was a 134% increase in employment.  In one study, information from the KDA project was utilized to inspect the effectiveness of prison based diversion by looking at people diverted by two prison based diversion programs in two distinct networks to non diverted prisoners in the same communities. Individuals who were redirected demonstrated no huge contrasts in their general rearrest rates, which were lower for both redirected and non diverted subjects at a year. However, the redirected bunch had lower rates of rearrest for low level offense violations comparative with the non diverted group. The numbers and results don't lie. These programs should be spread and utilized across the country so our numbers in the prison system are dramatically changed and our society can succeed as a whole.  

Legislatures are enacting policies that improve access to healthcare for individuals that are released from prison or jail.  Money is a big factor for many of these individuals to get the right treatment that they need. Fifteen states have allowed Medicaid coverage to be suspended, rather than canceled, upon incarceration. This increases the amount of individuals that can participate and benefit from these programs. Michelle Koser, a program director for the Lancaster Diversion program, explained, “when we see change we will see the dramatic results within the mental health community.  

The Lancaster Diversion Program is a community based program designed to diminish the number of individuals that have a mental illness within the prison system. A diversion program is a form of a sentence in which the criminal offender joins a rehabilitation program so that an individual can learn life skills so their illness does not have them wind up back in the system. The Lancaster Diversion Program provides a short term home-like environment to meet a person’s specific need for recovery.  Michelle Koser is the program director for Wellspan Health, one of the largest regional health systems in south central Pennsylvania. Koser has been working with these types of programs since 2007. She explained, “When these individuals come to our program we come to understand them and can see the dramatic difference these people go through after completing the program.”

The Lancaster Diversion Program sees close to a hundred individuals a month. “It starts with support and providing hope,” Michelle emphasized. These individuals must get a referral from doctors to enter in the program. Step two is making sure these individuals consistently complete the steps that will help them succeed in the program. These individuals are given supportive counseling, therapy, education, behavioral management, crisis intervention and community reintegration skills.  “Failure is something that everyone goes through and some of these individuals unfortunately fall back into the prison system but sometimes these failures help open these individuals' eyes,” Michelle emphasized.  Many of these individuals find that the program is too hard but when they realize the possibilities after completion many work harder and succeed at a rate they never dreamed of. 

Overall, diversion programs are very beneficial, specifically to those suffering from mental health conditions. They reduce the trauma inflicted on the individual, which in turn allows them to get the treatment they need. It allows them to maintain their normal schedules with family and work so they can continue to support themselves and be a contributing member of society. It also allows the programs to get to the root issue of the offense, instead of creating a record for someone who can better themselves through working within a diversion program. 


Life Changing Results for People with Mental Health Issues

Jesse Sheetz and Kristen Bogiatzis both work for Justice Realted Services in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. They're role is to help guide people who are admitted into their diversion program onto the right path of success. They share stories of individuals and explain how their success in the program has led them to take back control of their lives.

Produced and Edited by Jason Archer 


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