SHSU Team Studies Mental Health Court

Scales of justice and judge's gavel

A team of researchers at Sam Houston State University will evaluate a new mental health court in Montgomery County.

The College of Criminal Justice received a grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense to evaluate the effectiveness of the new program, which will provide a managing attorney and master’s-level social worker for criminal cases involving mentally ill defendants. The SHSU researchers include Drs. Jeff Bouffard, Holly Miller, Gaylene Armstrong, and Phillip Lyons.

The new court, which will refer defendants to a pool of specialized attorneys and to treatment services in the community, is expected to handle about 600 cases a year. The three-year research project will provide a process evaluation of the overall goals and objectives of the program and measure its success in terms of cost effectiveness, jail diversion, life skills and recidivism rates.

Mental health courts began about a decade ago in response to the high number of seriously mental ill defendants that were in jail. Nationwide, 17 percent of the prison population suffers from significant mental health illness, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Dr. Miller said.

"Since the de-institutionalization of mental health facilities, the increase of those with serious mental illness in jail has risen exponentially," said Dr. Miller, Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Programs at the College of Criminal Justice.

Each mental health court is set up differently, but generally defendants are referred to a specialized court by attorneys, correctional facilities or police officers if they meet certain mental health criteria. The cases are then assigned to defense attorneys with some specialized training or experience with mental illness.

Many of the cases are deferred for adjudication. Instead of punishment, defendants often are mandated by the courts to attend a treatment program. If the defendant continues the treatment program and meet other terms set by the court, they will not be put through the criminal justice system.

Montgomery County is currently hiring personnel for the new court and finalizing its program.

Among the issues that will be studied by the SHSU team are:

  • Time defendants spends in jail
  • Visits to treatment provides
  • General mental health symptoms
  • The use of videoconferencing
  • Recidivism rates
  • Life skills accomplishments
Member of The Texas State University System