Judge Kathleen Coffey, First Justice, West Roxbury Division and Director of Specialty Courts for the Boston Municipal Court Department, with help from the Judicial Institute, led the Trial Court’s second annual Mental Health Court Conference at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester earlier this month.
There are now seven mental health court sessions in Massachusetts. Cambridge District Court is the most recent court to offer a mental health court session.
The conference aimed to address the most pressing issues facing mental health courts, including how to:
- Identify and engage the proper target population
- Utilize the best assessment tools
- Determine appropriate rewards and sanctions
- Secure sustainable funding resources
- Capture and share data to measure program success
Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey praised the collaborative efforts of the mental health court teams, the Center of Excellence for Specialty Courts, and partner agencies, the Departments of Mental Health and Public Health.
“We need to work together to improve the system for everyone,” said Chief Justice Carey, who applauded the mental health court teams, which include judges, probation officers, mental health clinicians, court officers, and defense and prosecuting attorneys, adding that each person working in the courtroom is part of the team. Training on trauma and mental health can provide critical skills for front line staff when communicating with court users.
University of California, Berkeley professor and keynote speaker Jennifer Skeem challenged conference participants to think differently about their assumptions regarding justice-involved people with mental health issues. While the current model uses arrest as an opportunity to mandate treatment, Dr. Skeem presented research showing that mental health symptoms rarely cause someone to be arrested. Providing psychological services alone won’t decrease recidivism and improve outcomes, she said. The goal should instead be to help people avoid repeated hospitalizations and interactions with the criminal justice system. To achieve this goal, Dr. Skeem recommended bringing mental health treatment out into the community. Examples of this approach include: watching people take their medication; and providing access to services that alleviate poverty and provide increased structure, such as job skills training and placement.