Sites Selected to Pilot New Mental Health Court Curriculum

The Council of State Governments Justice Center has identified four jurisdictions to serve as “pilot sites” for its forthcoming curriculum for practitioners interested in developing mental health courts. Stakeholders from the pilot jurisdictions will use an advance version of the course, which includes online presentations and group activities, and participate in focus groups throughout the fall and winter to help authors finalize it for broad release. The Justice Center will release the final version of the curriculum online–where users can access it for free–in spring 2012.

Developing a Mental Health Court: An Interdisciplinary Curriculum is designed both for local mental health court teams as well as for state-level officials, such as problem solving court coordinators, to use in training practitioners in local jurisdictions. The curriculum will be piloted with both of these audiences in mind. The local pilot sites include teams from Polk County, Iowa, and Jefferson County, Washington, who will use the curriculum to plan new mental health courts in their jurisdictions. At the state-level, problem-solving court coordinators from Colorado and Delaware will be trained on the curriculum so that they can use the curriculum with interested jurisdictions from within their states.

With over 300 mental health courts operating in the country today, the opportunity to pilot test this first-ever mental health court curriculum was met with broad enthusiasm. The Justice Center received a total of 26 applications from 19 states—seven from state-level applicants and 19 from planning groups at the county level. Applicants were from all regions of the country, and their jurisdictions range in population density and size.

“We were thrilled to see such a strong response from the field showing interest in piloting this curriculum,” said Ruby Qazilbash, Associate Deputy Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance (U.S. Department of Justice),which is supporting the project. “We have worked with the Council of State Governments Justice Center to maximize the accessibility of this resource so that it reaches those who need it easily and cost effectively.”

In local sites (Polk and Jefferson counties), team members will undergo the course independently, without the guidance of an in-person trainer from outside the jurisdiction. Justice Center staff will directly observe the local teams as they proceed through the curriculum to gauge the curriculum’s usability. With the state pilot sites, individuals who oversee judicial training will participate in a “train-the-trainer” session to prepare them to administer the curriculum throughout their states. All four of the pilot sites will provide detailed feedback on their experience through pre- and post-curriculum surveys and interviews.

“We know that there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ way to make lives easier for mentally ill people when they are getting out of jail or on probation. I’m hopeful that, through this process, we can get everyone around the table to come to agreement on a way forward that is adapted to the unique needs of Polk County,” said Angela Connolly, a member of the Board of Supervisors of Polk County (IA), which includes Des Moines.

The curriculum is designed to be as useful for judges, attorneys, and corrections and law enforcement officers as it is for behavioral health (mental health and substance abuse) providers and administrators, case managers, and court administrators.

“In my community, the judge, sheriff, police chief, public defender, and myself – the prosecuting attorney – all encounter people with mental illnesses on a daily basis,” said Scott Rosekrans, representing the multidisciplinary team from Jefferson County, WA. “We all want to get educated on this issue and learn what’s going on in other areas of the country, so we can start thinking about what we can do other than prosecuting these folks or declaring them incompetent and sending them away.”

The train-the-trainer session for state judicial trainers will be open not only to Colorado and Delaware, but also to the five other applicant states. The resource’s authors and expert advisors will teach these trainers how to use the curriculum so that they can administer it to county-level teams in their own states. More of these training sessions will be set up in the future after the curriculum’s release in spring 2012.

“By providing training on how to administer the curriculum to all interested state coordinators, as well disseminating the final product in 2012, we hope to make this resource available to as broad an audience as possible,” Qazilbash said.

The curriculum is organized around a series of online modules, each with an accompanying activity guide and quiz, that guides stakeholders through the planning process. It begins by helping those taking the course determine whether a mental health court is right for their jurisdiction, then provides detailed guidance on how to design a program. Modules cover such topics as how to identify the population that the program will serve, setting terms of participation, developing and monitoring individualized treatment and supervision plans, and sustaining the program over the long term. The curriculum also includes introductory modules on the criminal justice system and behavioral health. The online modules include interviews with over 25 mental health court practitioners from around the country, as well as videos of mental health court staff meetings and court hearings (with fictional participants). These sessions were “acted” by the team from the Bonneville County Mental Health Court (ID), which is a BJA Mental Health Court Learning Site.

To ensure that the final product reflects the collective expertise of the mental health court field, the Justice Center is partnering with the National Center for State Courts, the National GAINS Center, the National Judicial College, and the Center for Court Innovation. The project is also directed by a steering committee that includes mental health court practitioners and policymakers from around the country.

Sites that already have a functioning mental health court were excluded from consideration as pilot sites, although they will be a potential audience for the final product. Because the curriculum is for adult mental health courts, jurisdictions interested in developing juvenile mental health courts were also not considered.