Karen Snedker, Seattle Pacific University – Therapeutic Justice: Crime Treatment Court and Mental Illness

A better way to handle mental health in the criminal justice system is needed.

Karen A. Snedker, professor in the department of sociology at Seattle Pacific University, explores what to do.

Dr. Karen Snedker has been at SPU for over 10 years. Prior to teaching at SPU, Dr. Snedker spent several years as an NIH researcher at the University of Washington in the Psychosocial and Community Health department. She maintains her ties to the UW as a clinical assistant professor in the School of Nursing, affiliate faculty in sociology and a CSDE research affiliate. Prior to moving to Seattle, Dr. Snedker lived in New York City and received her master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology from New York University.

Dr. Snedker’s teaching focuses on Dr. Snedker’s teaching focuses on urban sociology, law, homelessness, and criminal justice as well as introductory sociology courses for the general curriculum. In addition to her regular course load, she works on campuswide efforts to better engage our community around homelessness. Read a New York Times article highlighting her involvement in Tent City 3.

Dr. Snedker’s research addresses mental health, homelessness, crime and violence, and neighborhood effects. The scope of her published work is broad and it has appeared in sociology, geography, demography, public health, and crime academic outlets. Her current research program is twofold. First, she recently published a book, Therapeutic Justice: Crime, Treatment Courts and Mental Illness on the intersection between mental health and the criminal justice system. The book provides a unique mixed method study of mental health courts within the framework of the larger trend towards problem-solving courts. Findings from this research have also been published in Society and Mental Health and appeared in The Conversation. Second, in collaboration with Dr. Jennifer McKinney, Dr. Snedker is actively involved in homelessness and tent cities in terms of research, teaching, and public outreach. Together they designed an innovative research project while SPU hosted a homeless encampment known as Tent City 3. Research findings from this project were recently published in Contexts, Teaching Sociology, The Chronicle for Higher Education, and The Conversation.

Therapeutic Justice: Crime Treatment Court and Mental Illness


The number of individuals with mental health issues under the supervision of the criminal justice system is rising with grave consequences.  In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that 44% of jail inmates and 37% of prisoners had a history of mental health problems with many meeting the threshold for serious psychological distress.

Problem-solving courts, specifically mental health courts, have emerged as one response to the connection between mental illness and criminal justice involvement. Mental health courts are voluntary courts where clients agree to a set of court conditions. In exchange, they receive a reduced sentence or dismissal of criminal charges and gain access to a wider range of social and supportive services.

In my research, I studied two mental health courts. I observed court proceedings and conducted 48 in-depth interviews with team members and clients going through the court. In addition, I gathered quantitative data to analyze post-court outcomes for a select cohort of clients. Several key findings emerge from these data.

First, mental health courts are characterized by a therapeutic orientation and a less adversarial style leading to significant changes in culture and organization of the court. Mental health court practices are highly ritualized in ways that can reduce social stigma for clients. However, the sanctioning process from non-compliance can limit the therapeutic potential. 

Second, the makeup of the team is critical.  When led by a knowledgeable and empathetic judge and a strong team, the court experience can be therapeutic and reflect the principles of procedural justice.

Third, client data reveal that mental health court participation can positively change lives and reduce rates of reoffending.

My findings underscore the need for continued evidence-based research on mental health courts and other problem-solving courts. It can enhance its collaborative goals through improved management and education. Several reforms to sharpen the court’s therapeutic role would involve embracing more harm-reduction practices.

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