Mental Health and the Courts: What Can New Science and Technologies Offer?
On December 10, 2021, the Center sponsored a Workshop, “Mental Health and the Courts: What Can New Science and Technologies Offer?” At this closed, invitation-only Workshop, we were able to gather experts from various fields, including scientists, neuropsychologists, judges, legal experts and others deeply engaged in the complex issues that confront the court system in the area of mental health.
Our country is facing a behavioral health crisis, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. This crisis has affected every aspect of our judicial system. Statistics highlight some of the challenges. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 37% of adults incarcerated in the state and federal prison system have a diagnosed mental illness. Seventy percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health condition. The risk of suicide has risen significantly in correctional facilities. Recidivism is common, which may be due partly to the failure to deal sufficiently with mental health challenges in the criminal justice system.
The court system has begun to tackle these problems in various ways, from pre-arrest interventions, diversion and mental health courts, to increased training and improved data collection. We gathered the experts to discuss what new science and technology may have to offer in attacking the crisis.
We heard about innovative research on the ability to understand the underlying biology of mental illness and decipher how brains of affected individuals are altered by psychiatric disorders. We also heard about how science is working toward better diagnosis and treatment by quantifying behavior through digital tools and big data. Once we combine traditional clinical assessments with measures of brain function, and data collected from digital tools such as smartphones, we may be able to better predict future behaviors.
The implications for use of these tools in our justice system are enormous. Predicting who poses a danger to the community if they are released, as well as who will be responsive to rehabilitative efforts, may be significantly aided by using algorithms. This may lead to the ability to better tailor criminal sentencing, probation, and parole. While discussing the potential for these new tools, the group also noted the challenges they present, including how to determine whether the tools are accurate and reliable enough to use in the court system.
We also heard how the Arizona Justice system has been a leader in response to the challenges brought by the behavioral health crisis and the group began to explore how those programs may serve as a model for other state justice systems.
This Workshop will lead to a public conference on these issues, which we anticipate holding in 2022.