Treatment of Mentally Ill Persons in the Criminal Justice System

The Urban Institute recently released this significant new report titled, “The Processing and Treatment of Mentally Ill Persons in the Criminal Justice System: A Scan of Practice and Background Analysis.”

Here is an excerpt from the first few paragraphs of the report’s executive summary (with few references omitted):

Mentally ill offenders possess a unique set of circumstances and needs. However, all too often, they cycle through the criminal justice system without appropriate care to address their mental health.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, individuals with mental health needs make up a large proportion of the US correctional population.  An estimated 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners, and 64 percent of jail inmates have a mental health problem.  These individuals often receive inadequate care, with only one in three state prisoners and one in six jail inmates having received mental health treatment since their admission.  Offenders with severe mental illness place even more strain on the criminal justice system as a whole, in terms of their unique case-processing requirements and treatment needs and their increased risk of recidivism. Housing mentally ill offenders in the criminal justice system is costly.  In addition to high health care costs, mentally ill inmates tend to have higher rates of prison misconduct and recidivism.

Despite the evidence that mental illness in the criminal justice system is a pressing concern, our comprehensive effort to identify cost-effective, evidence-based programs and policies for managing and treating mentally ill persons in the criminal justice system brought to light how limited current knowledge is on this topic.  There have been only a few rigorous evaluations of criminal justice programs and policies targeted at mentally ill offenders.  This limitation, in and of itself, is a notable finding, as it shows what more needs to be done to better understand how to effectively alleviate the costs and challenges of treating and processing offenders with mental illness in the criminal justice system. Given these challenges and their financial consequences for society and governments, it is important to understand how to identify and provide early intervention for those who suffer from mental illness in the criminal justice system.

This report focuses on the societal and economic costs of holding mentally ill offenders in jails and prisons.  It also presents a detailed discussion of how mentally ill offenders are processed in the criminal justice system, highlighting the diversity of protocols and practices outlined in state statutes to address these challenges.  Further, it discusses several promising criminal justice interventions and policies for mentally ill offenders….

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