Mental Health Treatment Courts: An Alternative to the Traditional Criminal Court System

Coral Gables Counseling Center - Wednesday, April 17, 2019
By Gary S. Pont

A large number of people arrested in South Florida have a serious mental illness (SMI; e.g., schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder). The typical crimes charged are for non-violent misdemeanors (shoplifting, trespassing, disorderly conduct) and for non-violent felonies (thefts, criminal mischief, drugs). Traditionally, the criminal justice system was set-up or designed to offer jail to resolve these cases. Now, courts in Miami-Dade County offer mental health treatment as an alternative to jail. The goal is to  stop the revolving door of jail and to provide a better future for those who suffer from mental illness.

The Miami-Dade County Mental Health Diversion Program was created to accomplish this goal by “diverting” non-violent misdemeanor and felony defendants with SMI or co-occurring SMI and substance use disorders from the criminal justice system to treatment programs and services. The Diversion Program is totally voluntary and no one is forced to enter or enroll. However, once enrolled, the defendant must follow the prescribed treatment and all other conditions for six months to one year. If a defendant is successful, their case is dismissed or charges are reduced. If a defendant is unsuccessful, their case is transferred back to criminal court where jail is an option.

Accordingly, the Mental Health Diversion Program is decriminalizing mental illness. It offers the much-needed treatment and services that a mentally ill person deserves. The Program is clearly a better alternative to jail. Today’s court system is finally providing a “path for healing and recovery.”

What other steps do you think the criminal court system can take in order to create a better future for our non-violent offenders with a serious mental illness?
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