D.C. Mental Health Diversion Court Program Yields Positive Results

Mentally ill criminal defendants who completed a special diversion program in District of Columbia Superior Court were less likely to reoffend, compared with mentally ill defendants who went through traditional criminal proceedings, according to a recent study.

The study, published in June in Law and Human Behavior, tracked mentally ill defendants in the program and compared their rearrest record with mentally ill defendants who weren’t part of the program, which involves greater court supervision and the incentive of having criminal charges dismissed. The Mental Health Diversion Court program began in 2007.

The study is part of a small but growing body of research on the effectiveness of mental health court programs, which, like the popular drug courts, focus on getting defendants treatment and keeping them out of jail. Studies published to date have been positive about the programs. As was the case with this latest study, however, the research was inconclusive as to why the program works.

Following arrest, defendants on pretrial release are placed under the supervision of the Pretrial Services Agency, which tries to connect mentally ill defendants with treatment and other support. Since both groups in the study—those in the diversion program and those not—were getting the same access to mental health services through the agency, the study’s authors said they were better able to identify the effects of being in the diversion program.

According to the study, mentally ill defendants who received treatment generally were less likely to reoffend. But defendants in the mental health court program were 36 percent less likely than the comparison group to be arrested again in the year after completing the program. Controlling for factors that might make defendants more or less likely to reoffend, such as illegal drug use, sociodemographic characteristics and prior arrests, the difference shrank, but program participants were still 25 percent less likely to reoffend.

Mentally ill defendants charged with most misdemeanors and certain non-violent felonies can be eligible for the program, assuming they meet certain criteria and get approval from the U.S. attorney’s office. The defendants enter into deferred-prosecution or deferred-sentencing agreements, meaning the full criminal prosecution is reinstated if they fail to complete the program.

Defendants in the diversion program are under court supervision for four to six months, and have to get mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment, if needed. They appear regularly before a judge to update the court on how they’re doing. If they successfully complete the program, the charges are dismissed.

In addition to treatment, the authors found that regular monitoring and greater support from the court clearly made a difference in steering offenders away from future criminal activity. Wales said their leading hypothesis as to why such programs worked involved a theory known as procedural justice. The theory says defendants are more likely to obey the law if the system seems legitimate, and Wales said that sense of legitimacy comes from a defendant’s belief that they have input and are treated with fairness and respect.

Population of focus: People experiencing mental illness involved with the criminal justice system

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Date: 2013

Journal: Law and Human Behavior