Mentally Ill and Criminal Justice

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The mentally ill is over-represented in the criminal justice system when compared with the larger United States population. People with mental illness are incarcerated approximately 8 times more frequently than they are admitted to state mental hospitals, and are incarcerated for significantly longer time than other inmates (Ascher-Svanum, Nyhuis, Faries, Ball, & Kinon, 2010). This has been linked to an increased danger to themselves, other inmates and persons employed in the prison system. Effectively identifying and properly treating these individuals is crucial in creating a safer and more effective prison system. Currently there are approximately three times as many mentally ill in the prison system than in our mental health facilities (Fellner, 2007).

As a presidential advisory commission in recent years reported, the mental health system is “in disarray.” It is fragmented, chronically underfunded, and rife with barriers to access, particularly in minority communities. As a result, too many people who need publically financed mental health services cannot obtain them until they are in an acute psychotic state and are found to be a danger to themselves or others (Fellner, 2007). This lack of availability and support is evident in significantly higher rates of mentally ill imprisonment in minority communities.

Prison can be a dangerous place, especially for the mentally ill. Many mentally ill inmates are victimized by other inmates; we have increased rates of violence, mental breakdowns, and suicide in prison and jails (Harvard Mental Health Letter, 2000). In addition, many of these inmates receive inappropriate kinds or amounts of psychotropic medication that further impairs their ability to function. The failure of mental health systems has led to what some have called the “criminalizing of the mentally ill” (Fellner, 2007).

The mentally ill in our prisons have a diverse background, although overwhelming majorities of the mentally ill in prison were homeless prior to being incarcerated. Each night in the United States there are approximately 600,000 people homeless, tracking the homeless over a five year period that is approximately 2-3 percent of the population, or 8 million people, are homeless for at least one night. Of this about 80 percent of them will find housing within a few weeks, but about 10 percent will be homeless for a year or more. “About a quarter to a third of the homeless have a serious mental illness—usually schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or severe depression—and the population is growing” (Harvard Mental Health Letter, 2005).

Many attempts have been made to address the homeless issue; the main support for the homeless is Social Security and emergency shelters, which are underfunded and the staff has no specialized training. “The shelters are often filthy, dangerous, and crime-ridden. Many of the mentally ill avoid shelters because they fear violence and theft or cannot tolerate the noise, crowds, and confusion” (Harvard Mental Health Letter, 2005). The mentally ill who have been previously imprisoned are at especially high risk of homelessness. They find it difficult to adjust and to navigate the complex process of regaining the entitlements they had prior, and many have an even further damaged mental capacity.

Unfortunately, often the underlying problem of having a mental disorder is overshadowed by the actual offence, such as drug use or violent crime, which is common among the criminally mentally ill. Many in the community and political leaders have the attitude that arresting specifically the homeless population when possible achieves both cleaning up the streets from undesirables and shows the “effectiveness” of the police in that community. This misses the target of finding a solution to the actual core problem with a vast majority of the homeless in the community.

Many of the mentally ill prisoners do not have to capacity to comply with prison rules as other...
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