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Felicity

Felicity Zempilas

Year of Award: 2017 Award State: Western Australia Health And Medicine > Mental Health
None > Legal
To achieve best practice in the Western Australian Mental Health Court - USA
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As the dedicated Magistrate in Western Australia’s mental health court, referred to as Start Court, the Churchill Fellowship gave me the opportunity to travel to four locations in the US to visit and observe ten mental health and other solution focused courts.

The courts were all located in major cities; San Francisco, New York, Anchorage and Seattle. While crime and incarceration rates in the US are reportedly decreasing, these cities are home to diverse ethnic populations and all face burgeoning homelessness, substance misuse and mental health issues.

Of the courts visited, most had been operating for between 15 and 20 years, compared to the mere five years of Start Court. I hoped to draw on the experience of other mental health courts in further refining the model in Start Court.

No two courts I visited were identical and each responded to local need, in light of local services and treatment options within the framework of local policy, politics, funding opportunities and stakeholders.

However, there were many common themes and challenges;

  • the importance of identifying the target group of the court and how to most appropriately and effectively case manage such participants,
  • how to secure ongoing funding and political support,
  • how to operate differently within an adversarial justice system,
  • how to ensure consistency when staff, in particular judges, change,
  • how to motivate participants, especially when they are not facing jail, and
  • how to measure whether the court is effective.

These have been challenges and issues in Start Court also. Observing how mental health courts with many years of experience have responded to them provides inspiration from which we can draw.

The observations I have made suggest a road map for Start Court to follow; some new ideas to explore and implement as well as some to persist with we have already begun to put in place.

In particular, we can focus on:

  • Accommodating in-custody defendants,
  • Having advance discussion of the sentencing outcome,
  • Refining the case management role and resources,
  • Expanding available sanctions and incentives,
  • Being creative with funding opportunities, and
  • Advocating for national support and coordination of mental health courts.

My observations also highlighted several unique features of Start Court of which we should be proud including peer support for families, direct court access to clinical expertise and information and mental health consumer and carer input.

This Fellowship experience also reminded me we are part of a broader, international movement of innovation in criminal justice which requires us to work together, share what we have learned and keep evolving based on our experience.

Key words: Mental health court, solution-focused court, United States of America, Western Australia, magistrate, mental health, therapeutic jurisprudence

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