Mentally Ill Offenders

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I have been working in the mental health field for many years as a case manager and advocate for the incarcerated mentally ill.  I know full well the extent to which jails and prisons in America have become the new de facto asylums. "A Court of Compassion" [February 18], on alternative special courts for the mentally ill, will hopefully bring some greater public attention to this important issue.

I have been involved in helping to create successful treatment diversions as an alternative to jail for mentally ill offenders and know that these types of programs do work to reduce recidivism for this population. The key element is having the full support of the courts. The national trend toward creating more of these special Mental Health Courts across the country is a step in the right direction. It is both cost effective in that it reduces the jail population while also being the humane way to treat people with mental health disabilities who get caught up in the criminal justice system.

Jerry Bilinski


Wading River, N.Y.  

In the eighth circuit court for Ionia and Montcalm counties in Michigan, a Mental Health Court was established last fall. The process has reaffirmed my belief in what we can accomplish working together for a common good. With no specific funding or allocated resources, we are continuously looking for ways and means to improve our ability to serve mentally ill offenders and the community.

Judge David Hoort


Ionia, Mich.  

While critics of mental health courts contend that the criminalization of mentally ill offenders is a weakness of the court model, I see it as a strength. Those systems that force defendants to plead guilty in order to receive treatment offer the same respect to mentally ill defend-ants as they offer to other defendants: They recognize the capacity of mentally ill defendants to act as moral agents in the community. The moment that mentally ill offenders are completely excused of their criminal culpability is the moment that they cease to be recognized as contributing members of society.

Desiree Wilson


Philadelphia