The Perfect Recipe for Problem-Solving Courts

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My first job after law school was in Pulaski County, Arkansas, as a special assistant prosecuting attorney in a problem-solving court that saw mental health and substance misuse clients who were a danger to themselves or others. At the time, I had never heard of a problem-solving court and was surprised by how the judge ran the court. It wasn’t like anything I’d seen on Law & Order. And yes, unfortunately, that was my only reference to an operating court after graduating from law school. The judge, Mary Spencer McGowan, ran a tight docket and was a no-nonsense judge, but she taught me more about humanity in the justice system, second chances, and procedural fairness than any other influence in my career.

This was the mid- ‘90s before anyone was talking about procedural fairness or re-entry. Most of the clients on our dockets were suffering from serious mental health illnesses and were not taking their prescribed medications. In addition to this being my first experience in a problem-solving court, it was also my first experience with individuals with severe mental illness. Some clients were belligerent, and many were hearing voices and talking incoherently. All the clients testified, many times to their detriment. Judge McGowan listened patiently to every client, respectful of their testimony; she was understanding yet still held each respondent accountable for her/his actions. She rewarded positive behavior and discussed the importance of taking medication appropriately. I remember watching Judge McGowan and thinking that she was treating everyone fairly, holding them accountable, and giving them another chance at success all at the same time, which is the perfect recipe for a problem-solving court. And it’s one I’d draw on years later when I designed a grant to fund community-based problem-solving courts.  

As we observe Mental Health Awareness month, it’s important to recognize that jails have become our largest mental health facilities in the US, due in part to case law that deinstitutionalized state-run mental health institutions. What many people don’t know is that case law also required the establishment of community mental health centers, a process that has fallen short, leading to jail as a substitute. There are many of us working hard to change this, and this month let’s celebrate this work and all the progress we’ve made in effectively treating mental health issues outside the court system.

I’m glad my first experience with people with mental health issues was such a positive one, one based in understanding. Seeing Judge McGowan treat clients with respect and affording them the opportunity to testify on their own behalf without judgment has stayed with me, and I’m grateful for that. Today, I seem to have a different framework about mental illness than many of my friends. I’m not shaken by behaviors that suggest a person has a mental illness, and I’m comfortable offering help, recognizing we all need help sometimes.  

This month, join me in working to “CureStigma” surrounding mental illness. One in five adults in the US is affected by a mental health condition, and one in 25 (10 million) adults lives with a serious mental illness. Even though most people are treated successfully, less than half of US adults who need mental health services and supports get the help they need. One reason for this is stigma; the stigma against mental illness creates an environment of shame, fear, and silence that prevents many people from seeking help and treatment, making their journey to recovery longer and more difficult.

So, this #MentalHealthMonth, join me and:

As the National Alliance on Mental Illness puts it, “Compassion, empathy and understanding are the antidote. Your voice can spread the cure.” Let’s be that cure.

Kim Ball is the director of the Justice Programs Office. 

One Reply to “The Perfect Recipe for Problem-Solving Courts”

  1. Judge Mary McGowan is a credit to problem solving courts.
    I have known of many of her life saving efforts that have paid
    great dividends to the people of this state. You go girl.

    Chris E Williams

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