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Mental Health Court Reduces Recidivism

By Rick Hellman, HCF/KHI News Service, May 11, 2011

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The usually hushed atmosphere of Municipal Courtroom A was broken by polite applause when Judge John B. Williams dismissed the charges against the woman standing before him.

“Gabrielle, you have done very well,” the judge told her on a recent Tuesday morning.

Diversion, after all, is the goal of the mental health court program here in Jackson County, which operates at seven locations. This problem solving - rather than punitive - approach to justice is gaining acceptance around the country as statistics show it reduces recidivism dramatically among successful program participants.

“It’s a win-win-win-win,” said Gregg Lombardi, executive director of Legal Aid of Western Missouri, a non-profit organization that provides legal defense to poor people. “It’s a tremendously successful program from lots of different perspectives. It reduces the cost to the city in terms of jail time. It reduces the cost of police making arrests because it’s not such a revolving door. … But the greatest benefit is the change it makes in people’s lives.”

Judge Williams has been in charge of Mental Health Court since it was established in 2002.

“When we started looking at it, there were four in the country,” he said. “Now there are 600.”

The mental health court is one of five special courts in Jackson County. Others deal with military veterans, drug offenders, domestic violence, and housing cases.

Williams said the specialized courts are called, “therapeutic jurisprudence.”

“They are also sometimes called problem-solving courts,” he said. “We try to think more about the long-term effects. It is more effective to get somebody help than to punish them. You try to provide what is necessary to get that person to change their behavior and often that is cognitive training.”

In order to deal with the underlying cause of an offense, he said, “the court may mandate anger-control class … or to make sure that you stay on your medications, or deal with addiction issues. You need to customize your treatment to the person. You can’t just tell somebody not to do drugs without giving them some tools to do it.”

To be directed to the mental health court, a person first must qualify. It’s only for misdemeanor, non-traffic charges, and only if there is reason to believe mental illness or substance abuse is an underlying cause.

The arresting police officer may refer a case to mental health court. So can a county prosecutor or a fellow judge. According to a 2010 report prepared for the Mental Health Court Commission, there have been 3,801 referrals to the seven mental health courts in Jackson County since their inception almost a decade ago.

A diversion program typically takes six to 12 months to complete.

And the statistics show that those who complete the programs are significantly less likely to be convicted of new offenses.
In 2009, the latest year for which statistics were available, 11.7 percent of successful completers from 2008 had at least one conviction after discharge, according to the court commission.

That compared with 27.3 percent for those who flunked out of the program, and what Lombardi of Legal Aid called a national benchmark of 30 percent.

By comparing those two numbers, proponents cite a 60 to 69 percent reduction in recidivism among those who successfully complete the program.

“It’s not a free ride,” Judge Williams said.

In addition to drug testing, counseling and monthly visits to the courtroom, the judge typically requires participants to make restitution for any damaged property, avoid the location of the offense and perhaps other measures.

Between the weekly docket and the associated work, Williams said he devotes about one day a week to the mental health court.

He works closely with officials of Kansas City’s four main community mental-health centers, who serve as monitors and advisers: Truman Medical Center, Swope Health Services, ReDiscover and Comprehensive Mental Health Services.

Funding for the program has come from a variety of sources over the years, with the lion’s share coming from the county’s special mental health levy, which is part of the property tax. Earlier this year, the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City made a $55,000 grant to support Legal Aid’s work with clients of the court.

“It’s a true public-private partnership,” Judge Williams said.

Health News


  • USA Today, August 19, 2011
  • Pew Charitable Trust, August 5, 2011
  • Kansas City Star, August 16, 2011


  • Grandview News, August 16, 2011
  • Fox 4 News, August 17, 2011
  • Kansas City Star, August 16, 2011