We don’t throw people in jail for having cancer. We don’t put people in prison for having diabetes. And yet, too often, our response to people with mental illness or addiction is to lock them up.
The unfairness doesn’t end there. I have struggled with bipolar disorder and addiction most of my life. It was unlikely that I would end up in prison, but that’s not the case for millions of poor people and people of color who struggle with the same kinds of challenges I have.
There is hope for everyone, even people who have been involved with the criminal justice system. In fact, most people who have mental illnesses have conditions that are manageable. Up to 80 percent of people with mental illness improve with treatment.
As I have traveled around the country, I have met state and local officials who are integrating their mental health and criminal justice systems and getting impressive results. For example, in 2000, Florida’s 11th Circuit Court in Miami-Dade County established a program that diverts people who have serious mental illnesses and substance use disorders, but who don’t pose a threat to public safety, into community-based care instead of jail. As a result of the program, the county has been able to close an entire jail, saving taxpayers $12 million per year. The recidivism rate has dropped from 75 to 20 percent.
This is one example of the innovative programs that are turning people’s lives around. There are many others, but the principle is always the same: If we want to make our communities safer and do it in the most cost-effective way, we will focus on treatment of mental illness and addiction.
This is especially true today as America reintegrates our newest generation of veterans. Most of the brave men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing well, but some are not. Many are struggling with brain injuries, addiction, depression, and other invisible injuries of war, including scrapes with the law. We owe our heroes treatment and compassion, not a sentence to the county jail.
When we know what works, we need to do more of it. That’s why I’m excited about a new campaign announced by the National Association of Counties, the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and the American Psychiatric Foundation. “Stepping Up” is a nationwide initiative with the goal of reducing the number of people with mental illness and substance use disorders in our jails. The initiative will challenge counties across the country to adopt meaningful reforms to increase access to treatment services and improve coordination between mental health agencies and the criminal justice system.
As we move ahead with reforms, we will hear from doctors, judges, lawyers, educators, and many others. But there are other experts that we also need to hear from: people who are living with mental illness and addiction and their family members. These are the people who have the most direct experience with the mental health and criminal justice systems and they know, better than most, the things that need to change.
More than 50 years ago, my uncle, President John F. Kennedy, said: “The mentally ill … need no longer be alien to our affections or beyond the help of our communities.”
It really is that simple. Throwing people away doesn’t work. Treating everyone with dignity and respect does.
Patrick J. Kennedy is the Founder of The Kennedy Forum and former U.S. Representative (D-RI).