The leading mental health care provider in the United States is the nation’s prison system. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, prisons and jails across America are populated with more individuals with mental illness than residential mental health care facilities.
Many of these individuals are serving sentences for nonviolent crimes. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 25-40 percent of individuals with mental illness will encounter America’s criminal justice system at some point in their lives.
This is the same criminal justice system that, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population despite America only accounting for 5 percent of the world’s population.
Statistics show that not only are the nation’s prisons and jails overpopulated, but that individuals with mental illness actually account for a significant portion of the incarcerated population. Based on a 2006 U.S. Department of Justice study, of the more than 2 million inmates in the nation’s jails and prisons, more than half have symptoms or a history of mental illness.
Criminal justice reform aimed at diverting individuals with mental illness into appropriate treatment programs needs to be a national priority. Incarcerating people with mental illness is not an acceptable method of providing treatment.
In most cases incarceration merely temporarily ignores rather than addresses the issue at hand. People living with mental illness need access to adequate care and when those living with mental illness do offend, they need to be connected with community-based resources for treatment when applicable.
Not only is incarceration ineffective for individuals with mental illness, they are often more vulnerable in a prison environment. In fact, inmates with symptoms of mental illness are more likely to experience rape and solitary confinement while in prison than inmates with no symptoms or history of mental illness. The increased risk of traumatic experience while in prison coupled with the fact that according to the U.S. Department of Justice only about 1 in 3 mentally ill inmates in state prisons receive treatment makes it clear that jails and prisons are no place for mentally ill people.
When the nation focuses solely on the punishment of those with mental illness, they are not being given appropriate treatments and interventions. According to a U.S. Department of Justice study in 2006, inmates with mental illness are more likely than those without mental illness to experience multiple and longer incarcerations. This is especially true without proper treatment.
Ultimately, this system of punishment over treatment fails both the individual and society as a whole, as is evidenced by the high recidivism rate for inmates with mental illness.
Additionally problematic is the high cost of incarceration compared to lower cost and more effective treatment programs. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it costs about $31,000 to incarcerate an individual with mental illness for one year compared to the $10,000 that would be spent on mental health services based in the community. Not only does the incarceration of an individual with mental illness not make ethical sense, it does not make fiscal sense.
Reform of the criminal justice system aimed at providing treatment and services to those who are mentally ill is necessary. America should be funding treatment and diversion programs that are actually effective at promoting wellness and public safety rather than continuing to wastefully spend money incarcerating a vulnerable population when it has continually been shown to be both ineffective and costly. It is time to end the criminalization of mental illness in this country.