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Bar News - September 19, 2008

Improving Court Outcomes for Those with Mental Illness

The NH Judicial Branch is one of four jurisdictions in the US selected to participate in a national project designed to help chief justices and state leaders improve courts’ responses to people with mental illnesses involved in the justice system.

As part of the project, Chief Justice John T. Broderick Jr. will convene a statewide task force to examine ways to improve outcomes for people with mental illnesses engaged with the criminal justice system.

"The frequency with which people with mental illnesses enter our courts, jails and prisons remains a critical problem; we need to improve treatment options and—when appropriate—help these individuals avoid contact with the criminal justice system. Doing so not only will improve their quality of life but will lead to increased public safety and more efficient use of taxpayer dollars," said Chief Justice Broderick.
The NH Task Force will receive funding and technical assistance from the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center and from the National GAINS Center, a clearinghouse within the US Department of Health and Human Services for information about mental health and substance abuse services. Task force members will also participate in a policy forum with their counterparts from the other three states – Wisconsin, Idaho, and Delaware – that will be convened by the CSG Justice Center.

The New Hampshire Task Force will be coordinated by D. Joan Bishop, the court coordinator at the Superior Court Center. The group will receive $15,000 in funding for staffing and task force operations.

"Chief Justice Broderick has demonstrated his commitment to addressing the needs of people with mental illnesses, and we are pleased to be able to invite New Hampshire to participate," said Judge Steven Leifman, Special Advisor on Criminal Justice/Mental Health to the Florida Supreme Court and co-chair of the advisory board that reviewed the submissions. "The application process was very competitive, and we are confident that New Hampshire’s task force will design and implement successful strategies."

New Hampshire now has four specialty courts that are designed to find appropriate community-based treatment programs for non-violent offenders as an alternative to jail. The most recent mental health court initiative was launched in Portsmouth District Court in August. Similar programs, which promote compliance with treatment alternatives as a way to reduce recidivism, are also offered in Keene, Nashua and Rochester District Courts. There are about 175 mental health courts nationwide, according to US News and World Report.

According to a 2006 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly a quarter of both state prisoners and jail inmates who reported they had mental health problems had served three or more prior incarcerations. In New Hampshire, 53 percent of the inmates taken into the state prison system in the past year reported previous mental health treatment in the community, according to the state Department of Corrections and 45 percent reported past or recent use of medication prescribed for mental illness.

In an ongoing effort to establish sentencing alternatives, representatives from the Judicial Branch, mental health care providers, advocates for the mentally ill, law enforcement and the legal community will participate in a two-day conference in November to explore options, other than prison, for non-violent offenders with a history of mental illness or drug dependency. Strafford and Grafton counties have adult drug court programs; juvenile drug courts are also now in operation in six District Court locations throughout the state and two more scheduled to begin operations in the coming year.

The Sept. 5 issue of
Bar News reports on the increasing attention being paid to sentencing alternatives.

If you are in doubt about the status of any meeting, please call the Bar Center at 603-224-6942 before you head out.

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