By: Brennan B. Sumner

A pressing issue facing our society today is the role our justice system plays in its effect on vulnerable communities, like the criminalization of mental Illness. Those diagnosed with mental health issues are too often swept into incarceration with few if any alternatives to punitive sanctions. Providing mental health courts program in our state would be most beneficial.

mental health court

Decrying  this situation is well and good, but we at the Lesniak Institute for American Leadership feel actions speak louder than words.  

We envision a new system of Mental Health Courts in New Jersey which will provide a better alternative to penal sanctions for offenders suffering from mental illness. Mercer and Union counties have implemented an informal diversionary scheme for mentally ill offenders. New Jersey also has a diversionary court system in place for veterans whose mental and physical wounds often inhibit their ability to function in society.  Likewise, dozens of States have instituted formal Mental Health Courts to combat the incarceration cycle which sees mental illness criminalized and the mentally ill discarded as refuse into the penal system. 

mental health court

A statewide Mental Health Court system in New Jersey will benefit individuals and society.

Evidence suggests that stays in mental health treatment facilities reduce repeat offenses much better than terms of incarceration. 

Related: State Senator or Congressional Senator: What’s the Difference? 

Shifting the conversation away from a criminal connotation towards a public health issue, as we have done with Drug Courts, is necessary. 

Mental Illness is a rampant public health issue, it often goes undiagnosed, untreated, and manifests itself unchecked throughout the social fabric of our nation. It must be solved with a new approach to mental illness and our penal system contrary to the tired and overused methods of brute force those advocates of Law and Order put forth. Mental Health courts have the potential to change lives and society for the better. Legislation to establish Mental Health Courts in New Jersey has been proposed, but it has not received the traction it deserves. 

mental health court

Those afflicted with mental illness should not be discarded.

 They have potential, and their illnesses need not define them. A great many people with mental illness live normal, ordered lives, in full compliance with the law. They do so often because they had access to services and were not subjected to a harsh penal system that more often perpetuates the bad then it foments the good. We can and should make a change by instituting Mental Health Courts because it is both a logical and moral choice. 

Related: The Criminalization of Mental Illness

Incarcerating mentally ill offenders provides little tangible benefits and is enormously expensive.

 Society would save significant amounts of money and resources by focusing on treating the persons afflicted with mental illness rather than merely punishing them. This issue of savings taken  together with the moral travesty of incarcerating those diagnosed with mental illness makes reform both prudent and necessary. 

About The Author: Brennan B. Sumner is a graduate student at Montclair State University. In addition to interning at the Lesniak Institute , he works in campaign finance for the Democratic party in Legislative district 10.