Dissertation Spotlight: Experiences and Perceptions of Mental Health Court Administrators: A Mixed Methods Study

Mental health courts are a part of the criminal justice system and require that offenders, who would be prison-bound, do long-term community service while participating in mental health counseling. Due to the war on drugs and other criminalization problems, the first drug court opened in 1989. With the success of this treatment and solution, mental health courts followed similar principles created by the drug courts to help the mentally ill. One of the great aspects of mental health courts is the wide success they have in helping these individuals; however, why mental health courts are successful remains unknown. Mental health courts use a treatment-oriented approach with the principle of therapeutic jurisprudence, an interdisciplinary method that aims to positively influence the patient’s psychological wellbeing. This study researches why mental health court administrators believe mental health courts are successful and gives their perspective on the process from a holistic point of view.

Mental health court administrators were given questionnaires to determine their educational background, work history, and demographics. They were asked about their discretion, support, funding, organization tactics, data collection, and the program’s success. Once the first round of questioning was completed, selected administrators were questioned further regarding the funding, any challenges they faced, how COVID-19 influenced the profession, job preparation, and characteristics of administrations to figure out why the program is successful. The results of this study were later compared to a similar study with drug court administrators.

In the criminal justice system, there is increased tension in combating political ideology, budget limits, legality, and logistics that cause stress within the system. These problems within the system create obstacles for the administrators but offer a special subset of positions for administrators that focus on problem-solving and court treatment.

The mistreatment of the mentally ill is exemplified through wrongful imprisonment rather than necessary psychiatric help, widespread negative stigmas on asylums, and maltreatment of community-based services for the mentally ill. Since these courts became popular, they sought funding and support, which led to research regarding why these courts were deemed successful. One of the issues is that the term ‘successful’ is not a universally agreed upon term and this research aims to focus on the administrator’s perspective for why the mental courts are successful in their terms. This study uses a mixed methodology between mental health courts and drug courts to better understand the role of administrators and the process within them.

Some of the challenges imposed on mental health courts are maintaining funding resources, agreeing upon treatment options, differences about the success of the program, and stakeholder positions upon said success. Stakeholders’ opinions are one of the bigger challenges that court administrators face, especially with mental health courts, since they are the main components of what success means to the criminal justice system, the individuals in the system, and society.

The first survey the researcher sent went directly to the mental health court administrators listed in the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration. This survey will be followed up with more questions regarding what challenges mental health court offices face and pose solutions to what can be done to solve these problems. 

Dr. Christine Thompson is a graduate of the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. This post was based on Christine’s dissertation, written by COSSPP Blog Intern, Lindsey Anderson.

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