Unlike drug courts, which have been informed by national standards for 10 years, mental health courts (MHCs) have developed without national guidance. This January, after receiving support from The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, New Hampshire became one of a growing number of states to establish statewide governing documents for MHCs, such as guidelines, principles, and best practice standards. Released by the New Hampshire Judicial Branch, the Guidelines for New Hampshire Mental Health Court Teams provides a framework of best practices to guide program development and operation. These guidelines are now being used to help state officials begin to implement a range of programmatic strategies that support MHCs to improve outcomes for MHC participants.
While the guidelines were released in 2023, the work to develop them began years before. With 14 MHCs in its 10 counties, the New Hampshire legislature initially sought to understand how these programs operate to be able to support their success in reducing recidivism and increasing connections to care. Following a statewide commission recommendation in 2019, the New Hampshire Judicial Branch created a committee and requested technical assistance from the Center for Justice and Mental Health Partnerships—a training and support center administered by the CSG Justice Center with support from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs’ Bureau of Justice Assistance as part of the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program.
Their request was for a thoughtful analysis of current MHC operations in the state and assistance in developing statewide guidelines grounded in national best practices. To support this request, CSG Justice Center staff:
- Collaborated with the National Center for State Courts, which is coordinating conversations among various states on MHC standards;
- Developed an inventory of key elements for statewide MHC standards based on existing research and analysis of recently developed standards from Georgia, Michigan, and Nebraska; and
- Completed a line-by-line comparison with New Hampshire’s draft standards to suggest additional items for consideration, such as a new section bringing together various standards protecting defendant rights and another on due process and confidentiality.
“The technical assistance provided by the CSG Justice Center, including the survey of practices and procedures in our existing MHCs, provided important data to New Hampshire’s committee studying MHC standards,” said Hon. Susan Ashley, deputy administrative judge of the New Hampshire Circuit Court.
To assess current practices of existing MHCs in New Hampshire, CSG Justice Center staff analyzed the results of a 100-plus-question state MHC policy survey that New Hampshire mental health coordinators received in October 2021. By comparing the newly developed state guidelines with the survey results, CSG Justice Center staff were able to identify strengths as well as gaps and potential areas for assistance across the state. Some identified areas for assistance included:
- Educating MHCs on the role of a stakeholder/interagency workgroup
- Educating MHCs on the role of staffing meetings and the importance of collaboration from the judge in those meetings
- Discussing requirements that would be necessary for people to graduate from MHCs
- Developing a statewide reporting system to hold certain MHC-related data
“The survey results reflected several consistencies among our MHCs while also highlighting divergent practices,” added Judge Ashley. “This information was key to formulating statewide guidelines for existing and future mental health courts in New Hampshire.”
Shelly Golden, one of the state’s mental health court coordinators, agreed. “CSG Justice Center staff provided us with professional, effective, and supportive guidance,” she said. “We now have what we need to understand and support our existing MHCs to be the best based on a review of national data and best practices, taking into account the varied strengths and resources available to us in different regions of New Hampshire.”
States or other jurisdictions looking for support to help improve their mental health court practices can request assistance through the Center for Justice and Mental Health Partnerships.
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