The Healing Practice of Law in Action: Mental Health in Problem Solving Court
By Emily Blitzer, CFCC Student Fellow (2018-2019)
The Baltimore City Mental Health Court (“BCMHC”) operates within the confines of the Baltimore City District Court system, but its purpose is to provide meaningful justice to criminal offenders with mental health issues. A brief visit to a court session reveals a much more relaxed tone compared to a traditional criminal court. Family members, counselors, attorneys, and the court work collaboratively to prevent offenders from entering the prison system. National studies have shown that this approach improves both public safety and the quality of life for the offender. Defendants can only participate in the BCMHC if they have committed nonviolent offenses.
Although BCMHC is within the criminal docket of the Baltimore City District Court, it is separate from the general criminal docket. The court is a problem-solving court with its own “special docket.” Most often, the Office of the Public Defender refers accused offenders to participate in this special problem-solving court. Once referred, an offender remains out of prison, receives mental health services from Baltimore City, and is held accountable for compliance through regular appearances during special court sessions. Based on just one observation of a BCMHC session, it is clear that something vastly different from criminal court is occurring. While the room looks like any other courtroom and the judge on the bench commands the full authority of the room, the tone is decidedly therapeutic.
Studies from around the nation indicate that this divergence from traditional criminal hearings and sentencing provides a “win/win” for the public and the accused. Public safety is enhanced when mental illness is addressed and compliance with therapeutic plans is supervised by an individual’s family, social services, and the court. Moreover, individuals with mental illness comply with greater enthusiasm when they are not traumatized by the prison setting. Most prisons are not equipped to effectively handle mentally ill offenders. Instead, they provide this vulnerable population with an environment that leads to substantial stress, non-compliance, and recidivism. The circle of incarceration continues.
BCMHC seeks to break the circle by minimizing the stress on the mentally ill. A court session might include mothers looking to reunite successfully with their children, adult children traumatized by poverty, and men lost in the streets – – all seeking a second chance through a system that works therapeutically instead of adversarial.