Mental illness and police: The need for jail diversion programs

The issue of overcrowding in American prisons and jails is well known. Capacity in some correctional facilities has been exceeded to the point of violating prisoners’ constitutional rights, as in the case of the California prison system. Our punitive, incarceration-happy criminal justice system has achieved the main goal of the private prison industry: lock up as many people as possible.

As has long been evident in the national “war on drugs,” the criminal justice system overall has been slow to recognize that in many instances, treatment is not only the more humane and logical alternative to incarceration, but the financially sustainable one in the long-term.

In no cases is this point clearer than when individuals with mental illness come into contact with law enforcement and the courts.

In 2006, the Department of Justice reported that 56% of State prisoners, 45% of Federal prisoners, and 64% of jail inmates showed some sign of mental illness or distress. A full quarter of inmates in State prisons had a recent diagnosis of mental illness, as did 14% of 14 Federal inmates and 21% of those held in local jails. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that the American prison and jail system currently holds over 500,000 people with mental illness, with as many as 1.5 million mentally ill people passing through the criminal justice system each year.

Even more recent census studies find incredibly high prevalence of mental illness among incarcerated people: upwards of 15 percent of male inmates and 30 percent of female inmates screened positive for serious mental illness in one 2009 study. These figures are staggering.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness puts it best in its statement on the criminalization of mental illness:

…persons who have committed offenses due to states of mind or behavior caused by a brain disorder require treatment, not punishment. 

But it doesn’t seem like that’s what they’re getting. Instead, prisons are being prescribed in place of treatment by those who mistakenly believe that incarceration is the cure-all for criminality.

There is cause for hope, though. Mental health professionals have been building relationships with law enforcement officials across the country to train cops to recognize those in mental distress and who would benefit from treatment rather than being locked up, which might exacerbate mental disorders and perpetuate a cycle of incarceration rather than rehabilitate them. These police-mental health partnerships have helped establish jail diversion programs across the country, in which mental health professionals work at police stations or even ride along with patrols to assess the mental health status of those brought in for criminal activity.

Jail diversion programs across the country have allowed hundreds of the mentally ill to become patients rather than inmates. These programs remind us that the criminal justice system is meant to address crime and pursue justice, not just lock up those who commit criminal acts. A jail diversion approach takes criminal acts as symptoms of mental illness by those in need of treatment.

Our law enforcement and courts should learn to better identify people who are guilty of nothing more than mental illness. Rather than fill prisons and strain budgets housing those who need treatment and rehabilitation, our criminal justice system should continue to build on jail diversion programs. Ours should be a system based on justice for all involved, and not solely oriented blindly toward retribution.

About David Matson