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Mental Illness and Criminal Justice

By gpardue26 Oct 22, 2013 1625 Words

SPEA-J 101
American Criminal Justice System
Instructor Michael Owens


The criminal justice system in the United States of America is a complex system concerning law, policing, courts, and corrections. Each action and change within these areas affects the entire system. Each system works together to ensure that the ultimate goals of the criminal justice system are met. The goals of the criminal justice system are to prevent and control crime, and to maintain social order. While maintaining social order, the system must ensure that the individual rights and liberties of people are protected. This includes the individual rights and liberties of people who are mentally ill. Mental illness is an all too common issue that affects approximately 11% of the United States. (James & Glaze, 2006) The criminal justice system is constantly changing. New decisions are made and new laws are created. The criminal justice system deals with the mentally ill on a constant basis and there are new laws, rules, and amendments that need to be implemented to protect persons inflicted with mental illnesses instead of criminalizing them.

People who are mentally ill sometimes enter the criminal justice system through policing. When an officer must confront someone who is mentally ill, they have some discretion in their decision process. They do follow, “parens patriae, which dictates protection for disabled citizens”. Someone mentally ill may be arrested, hospitalized, or informally dealt with. There are no exact boundaries as to what the officer may decide to do. Sometimes officers are forced to make hard decisions. Officers usually try to hospitalize someone on an emergency basis who is mentally ill rather than arrest them, but sometimes hospitalization is a problem to enact. Hospitals may refuse to accept the person that is mentally ill because they are dangerous, have been admitted several times, or because they abuse drugs or alcohol. Officers try to handle the mentally ill through non-formal means, but they are often forced to take action. Officers can generally tell if a patient will be accepted at the hospital or not. If the mentally ill are not able to be hospitalized, then an arrest must be made. This usually means that the mentally ill person is charged with a crime. This is when the mentally ill persons sometime enter the formal criminal justice system.

Unfortunately this does not protect these disabled persons. These mentally ill persons are being criminalized for their mental illness. Disturbingly, in an observational study performed, “The probability of being arrested was 67 percent greater for suspects exhibiting signs of mental disorder than for those who apparently were not mentally ill”. Even more disturbing in this study is that, “Fourteen of the 30 mentally disordered suspects, or 47 percent, were arrested, compared to 133 of the 476 other suspects, or 28 percent”.

This is a serious problem. With such shocking statistics, there is no doubt that the criminal justice system is criminalizing the mental illness. In some cities, there may only be one officer professionally trained to recognize and handle the mentally ill. More training is needed all over the country to ensure that mentally ill persons are protected by parens patriae. In addition, laws must be enacted to prevent hospitals from discriminatingly turning away those in need of help. This should at the very least include a 72 hour restraint, evaluation, and treatment plan.

Many mentally ill persons that are arrested end up staying in jail for some time or even prison. The percentages speak for themselves, “At midyear 2005 more than half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem, including 705,600 inmates in State prisons, 78,800 in Federal prisons, and 479,900 in local jails.” It is obvious that the funding problem that hospitals were facing has now turned into a funding problem with the criminal justice system. Incarceration is not the best place for the mentally ill to receive treatment. Not only are their mental health needs sometimes not adequately met while incarcerated, but incarceration and labeling by the criminal justice system may worsen the mental health of the prisoner. Shockingly, “State prisoners who had a mental health problem were twice as likely as State prisoners without to have been injured in a fight since admission (20% compared to 10%).” With conditions like these, it is unlikely that these mentally ill persons are getting the treatment, proper environment, and help that they truly need to be rehabilitated. Many mentally ill persons regularly use illegal drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with and treat their afflictions. This results in co-occurring mental illnesses. Many of the mentally ill are under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they are arrested. In 2004 and 2002, studies were done by the Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities and the Survey of Inmates in Local Jails. They found that, “Among inmates who had a mental health problem, local jail inmates had the highest rate of dependence or abuse of alcohol or drugs (76%), followed by State prisoners (74%), and Federal prisoners (64%)”. Females that are incarcerated are more likely than men that are incarcerated to suffer from mental illness, “An estimated 73% of females in State prisons, compared to 55% of male inmates, had a mental health problem.” Certain ethnic groups are more likely to have a mental illness while incarcerated, “Among State prisoners, 62% of white inmates, compared to 55% of blacks and 46% of Hispanics, were found to have a mental health problem”. The differences do not stop there. Certain age groups were also more likely to have a mental illness while incarcerated, “Among State prisoners, an estimated 63% of those age 24 or younger had a mental health problem, compared to 40% of those age 55 or older”. Diversion programs have been developed to help these issues. Diversion programs are used to filter the mentally ill out of the system. They may divert the mentally ill to programs and treatment in lieu of incarceration. Unfortunately, there are not enough diversion programs to identify, divert, and treat the mentally ill facing incarceration. Many places have established and implemented these diversion programs, but they are not everywhere. Based on a survey from 1994, only 34% of jails had implemented diversion programs, but when they were formally investigated, “their final estimate was that only about 50-55 true jail diversion programs for mentally ill detainees exist nationwide”. That is an average of about one diversion program per state. This small number of diversion programs can in no way treat the mass amount of mentally ill persons processed through the criminal justice system. These diversion programs should be implemented everywhere. There should be laws, rules, and guidelines enacted to ensure that mentally ill persons are offered these diversion programs to ensure that the criminal justice system is no longer criminalizing mentally ill persons. Capital punishment is another matter that needs changes implemented in regards to the mentally ill. If a mental illness has contributed to a crime, then capital punishment should not be used. More than ever, advocates for mentally ill persons are pushing to stop the government from executing them. Protection for mentally retarded persons has already been enacted, “On June 20, 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that executing people with mental retardation violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, overruling its Penry v. Lynaugh decision in 1989”. Mentally ill persons deserve the same protection. With 5% to 10% of all persons on death row estimated to have a serious mental illness, it is ultimately criminalizing mental illness. Sadly, “Since 1983, over 60 people with mental illness or retardation have been executed in the United States”. Proper treatment, rehabilitation, and diversion programs are desperately needed to end these injustices to the mentally ill. New laws and legislation must be made to protect the lives of the mentally ill. Mentally ill persons may be wrongfully convicted as well. Mentally ill persons may be less inclined or able to properly communicate and cooperate with the defense. They may also give false confessions. Persons who are mentally ill may have a multitude of reasons for giving false confessions, “People with mental disabilities have often falsely confessed because they are tempted to accommodate and agree with authority figures. Further, many law enforcement interrogators are not given any special training on questioning suspects with mental disabilities. An impaired mental state due to mental illness, drugs or alcohol may also elicit false admissions of guilt.” Sixty people who have mental illnesses have been executed in this country since 1983. This is unacceptable and it needs to be stopped immediately. All of this information leads to the realization that the criminal justice system is criminalizing mental illness. This criminalization by the criminal justice system is not providing parens patriae to these citizens inflicted with mental illnesses. Drastic measures need to be taken now to stop this criminalization and to start protecting the mentally ill. Each area of the criminal justice system needs to work together to come up with new goals and processes that will ensure the safety of these individuals. High power decisions must be made to ensure that all areas of the system will cooperate and be held accountable for the rehabilitation and treatment of the mentally ill and to stop the criminalization of mental illness.


ACLU. (2003, September 4). Mental Retardation and the Death Penalty. Retrieved October 29, 2011, from American Civil Liberties Union: Arons, B. S. (2000). Mental Health and Criminal Justice Testimony. Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services. Innocence. (2011). False Confessions. Retrieved October 29, 2011, from Innocence Project: James, D. J., & Glaze, L. E. (2006). Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. Penalty, D. (2009, May). Mental Illness on Death Row. Retrieved October 29, 2011, from Death Penalty Focus: Teplin, L. A. (2000). Police Discretion and Mentally Ill Persons. National Institute of Justice, 8.

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