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New York StateUnified Court System

Mental Health Courts

Key Principles

Coordinated Planning & Administration | Target Population | Referral, Screening & Assessment | Individualized Treatment Plans | Informed Choice & Voluntary Participation | Terms of Participation | Linking to Community-Based Services | Information Sharing & Confidentiality | Judicial Monitoring & Motivating Compliance | Evaluation

Coordinated Planning and Administration

Mental Health Courts require collaboration among a broad-based group of stakeholders: judges; court administrators; prosecutors; defense attorneys; public mental health and substance abuse agencies; community-based providers of mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment and related services; law enforcement, corrections and probation agencies; people with mental illness, their family members and mental health advocates; crime victims; and other community members. Involvement of these stakeholders in the planning and operations of a Mental Health Court will help ensure that the resources and activities of the court are coordinated with those of other criminal justice and mental health agencies working with offenders with mental illness. The planning process for Mental Health Courts should include creating a local working group of stakeholders assist in the creation of program guidelines and the development of cross-training programs. A team of court personnel will create a planning document that serves as a guide to the implementation and operations of the court.

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Target Population

Eligibility criteria for Mental Health Courts are based on the specific nature of the criminal offense and the nature and severity of a person’s mental illness. Mental Health Courts should target individuals whose mental illness is related to their current criminal justice involvement and whose participation in the court will not create an increased risk to public safety.

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Referral, Screening and Assessment

Defendants with mental illness cannot be identified on the basis of their criminal charges, and their symptoms and/or psychiatric history may not be readily apparent to lawyers and judges. In order to identify potential Mental Health Court participants, Mental Health Courts should ascertain all possible referral sources and develop tools and procedures for identifying, referring, and screening such individuals. Mental Health Courts should also have resources available for thorough psychosocial and/or psychiatric assessments of potential participants so that the court can determine whether an individual is eligible for participation and understand what community-based services will be required to meet the individual’s treatment goals and the community’s public safety goals.

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Individualized Treatment Plans

Individualized treatment plans that balance individual treatment goals and public safety goals are one of the cornerstones of Mental Health Courts. These plans set forth treatment-related objectives and court mandates that must be achieved by the Mental Health Court participant prior to successful completion and graduation from the program. Courts and the community-based service providers working with mental health court participants may need to adjust individualized treatment plans as clinical needs change during an individual’s participation in a Mental Health Court.

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Informed Choice and Voluntary Participation

A person’s decision to participate in a Mental Health Court must be voluntary and based on informed choice. Mental Health Courts will establish procedures for ensuring that each participant fully understands the terms of participation, including the impact on his/her criminal case and the proposed treatment alternatives. In particular, Mental Health Courts must address issues of competency prior to a defendant’s enrollment in the program.

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Terms of Participation

Terms of participation in a Mental Health Court are based on both criminal justice criteria and mental health considerations. Mental Health Courts will develop program guidelines regarding whether participation takes place before or after a plea and/or sentencing, the length of the court’s treatment mandate, requirements for graduation from the courts, rewards for successful completion of all court mandates, and consequences for failing to comply with or complete court mandates.

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Linking to Community-Based Services

Participants in Mental Health Courts need to be connected to a wide array of individualized, adequate, and appropriate treatments and services, including mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, case management services, supported housing, educational and vocational services, and assistance with public benefits. Mental Health Courts must work closely with service providers to ensure that individuals obtain appropriate services throughout their participation in a Mental Health Court.

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Information Sharing and Confidentiality

Mental Health Courts can best meet both their individual treatment goals and their public safety goals when court staff, lawyers and community-based service providers regularly share appropriate information about participants. As Mental Health Courts develop procedures for regular sharing of information, they must also create protocols to protect participants’ confidential medical, mental health and substance abuse treatment information.

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Judicial Monitoring and Motivating Compliance

Judicial monitoring and the coordination of judicial and clinical actions to motivate compliance with treatment provide another cornerstone of Mental Health Courts. Mental Health Courts will consider information received from service providers when implementing graduated rewards and sanctions to motivate compliance with court mandates.

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Mental Health Courts will establish case tracking and data collection procedures. These procedures will enable court personnel and key stakeholders to ensure that relevant information flows continuously, quickly and reliably to and from the judge and to allow for an evaluation of the court.

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