A Crisis in Our Jails
By Riki Hokama and Renee Binder
U.S. News & World Report
With the closing of state psychiatric hospitals and the decrease in funding across the board for community mental health services, many people with serious mental illnesses wind up in the U.S. criminal justice system. In fact, the nation’s jails and prisons have become de facto hospitals for people with mental illnesses, many of whom also struggle with substance use problems.
More than two million people with mental illnesses enter county jails each year. Jails that were never intended to be mental health facilities are serving more people with mental illnesses than state and local psychiatric hospitals.
We know what works to keep seriously mentally ill individuals out of jails and prisons. We know that it’s important to provide the mentally ill with services that take into consideration mental health and substance use needs. We also know that stabilizing factors such as family supports, housing and employment can be important components of treatment.
It’s a tall order to develop the capacity, expertise and supports needed in communities, but counties across the country are stepping up and showing tremendous leadership that has created a strong foundation for reform. They have trained police in crisis intervention, created mental health and other specialty courts, improved pretrial diversion and tailored supervision and reentry programs to consider individuals’ complex needs. Despite these efforts, many individuals with mental illness wind up in our jails and prisons.
There is an urgent need to fix a broken system, address mass incarceration and end public spending that doesn’t yield good results in terms of providing effective services and keeping seriously mentally ill individuals out of jails and prisons. Addressing this need requires bringing together state and county policymakers, heads of behavioral health programs and leaders in the criminal justice system to create the structure to support change. And the many agencies, organizations and individuals who can shape and implement that change, including people with mental illnesses and their loved ones, must be involved.
That’s why we partnered with the Council of State Governments Justice Center to launch “Stepping Up: A National Initiative to Reduce the Number of People with Mental Illnesses in Jails.” With support from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and guidance from several national groups dedicated to these issues, counties across the country are joining a call to action and taking specific, research-driven actions to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in county