Updated guidance for judges on mental health diversion strategies now available
January 23, 2024 -- A revised Judges’ Guide to Mental Health Diversion is now available to help judges promote and implement diversion strategies for individuals with behavioral health needs in their communities.
In the guide, NCSC, stakeholders, and national experts share the most recent information and a better understanding of how to effectively guide individuals with a mental illness or co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders toward the appropriate treatment and away from the court system if applicable.
"The updated guide provides a roadmap for courts and judges to use to promote and implement diversion strategies for individuals with behavioral health needs in their communities," said NCSC Principal Court Management Consultant Michelle O'Brien. "Ideally, judges would collaborate with a range of system stakeholders to examine the entire diversion continuum but could also focus on one step of the process at a time."
The guide focuses on jail diversion systems, post arrest, and pre plea. It includes recommendations for screening and using assessment tools to identify diversion candidates and offers advice about diverting individuals to treatment and away from the justice system.
During a December mental health diversion program webinar, Judge Steve Leifman praised the diversion system for providing hope and better well-being to individuals. Judge Leifman, who is an administrative judge from Miami, Fla., and member of the National Judicial Task Force to Examine State Courts' Response to Mental Illness, said judges are uniquely positioned to play an essential role in leading collaboration and change among system partners.
The December 2023 update is the first since the guide’s initial release 15 years ago. In 2022, the national task force recommended updating the guide due to the mental health crisis in jails. In many parts of the country, jails often act as primary mental health institutions.
Leifman emphasized that the guide is not about developing a mental health court but creating a broader diversion system. An estimated 70 percent of individuals in the criminal justice system have mental health issues, substance use disorders, or both, and mental health courts handle approximately one-tenth of one percent of people who need help. Steps to starting a mental health diversion system are outlined in the guide.
In 2023, NCSC provided technical support to five courts in Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and Wisconsin to establish pre-adjudication diversion opportunities. The pilot sites tested recommendations from the task force and provided feedback about the updated guide. Programs in Kentucky and Missouri were highlighted in the webinar.
"The community partnership and relationship building are the most important part of the guide and is the most important part for any treatment model in existence," noted Kentucky District Judge Kevin Mullins.
NCSC's ongoing effort to improve outcomes for people with mental health and co-occurring disorders is supported by CCJ/COSCA's resolution to address the impacts of serious mental illness on the court system.