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Michigan Legislature encouraging setup of mental health courts

As in the rest of the country, many people are arrested in Michigan who are dealing with mental illness. Unfortunately, the U.S. criminal justice system has not always recognized that a person with a mental illness may not be able to understand or control his or her actions, and thus cannot be punished or rehabilitated in the traditional ways.

The historical standard to prove guilt by reason of insanity was generally very high. This meant that many people suffering from a serious medical condition were treated the same way as those who were not when it came to trial and sentencing. Long prison terms with little to no mental health care were not uncommon.

In recent years, as understanding of mental illness has grown, many jurisdictions have tried to treat criminal activity allegedly committed by a mentally ill person differently than in traditional prosecutions.

Several counties in Michigan have set up mental health courts, an alternative system in which defendants can be sentenced to treatment instead of incarceration. Supporters, including many criminal defense attorneys, say that mental health courts are more humane and effective. The rates of recidivism go down as defendants get help for their conditions. And treatment is often less expensive than incarceration.

Encouraged by the work that existing mental health courts have done, the Michigan Legislature passed several bills that would set guidelines for any counties that wish to create their own versions. The bills had not yet been signed by Gov. Rick Snyder as of Dec. 28, but a spokesman said that Snyder may do so in coming days.

Source: The Detroit News, “Courts for mentally ill gain steam in Michigan,” Ursula Watson, Dec. 28, 2013

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