Mental Illness and Criminal Justice: Our Impossible, Contradictory Polices and Their Tragic Impact

Research shows that the mentally ill, in fact, exhibit low levels of violence, with only 5-7 percent of all mentally ill persons ever committing a serious criminal act, and rarer still, an act of violence targeting strangers. What little violence is carried out by the mentally ill is usually committed by untreated individuals who are abusing drugs and alcohol.

Even so, in the U.S. we’ve seen the criminalization of mental illness over the last three decades, a damaging trend that continues largely unabated. With the closing of state hospitals and reductions in mental-health hospital beds, the criminal justice system has come to assume the primary role for responsibility for the mentally ill. The U.S. holds more than 2.1 million individuals in local jails and state and federal prisons, and it has been estimated that more than 700,000 have a mental illness diagnosis, locked up in overwhelming percentages for nonviolent offenses.

Not surprisingly, the criminalization of mental illness is expensive. The price of keeping a mentally ill person in New York City’s Riker’s Island jail is two times higher, at $60,000, than providing community and residential care. A recent New York Times article by Brent Staples indicates that 40 percent of inmates sentenced to life imprisonment are mentally ill, often after committing a minor, nonviolent felony, such as shoplifting or passing a bad check, that constituted a third offense under states’ “three-strikes” sentencing laws.

One major consequence of our present situation is the continuing stigma of mental illness. The stigma reduces the support of the public to enhance funding of mental health services. Funding of mental health services have been reduced dramatically, a worrisome ongoing trend. It is imperative that attention be devoted at state and national levels to discussions about retooling mental health systems.

via Gerald Landsberg: Mental Illness and Criminal Justice: Our Impossible, Contradictory Polices and Their Tragic Impact.

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