Perspective: Mental Illness Crisis in Jails Demands New Approach

February 13, 2017

Dorothea Dix was a trailblazer who railed against the inhumane treatment of people with mental illnesses. Shocked by the sight of people with illnesses shackled in jails, she advocated for compassion, not punishment, and helped establish the model for the mental hospitals we have today. That was about 200 years ago. How is it, then, that we’re still applying a 19th-century approach to a problem in the 21st century? Today, we know more and we can do more. People with mental illnesses have unique needs, and their overrepresentation in jail, prison and other ill-equipped settings is a national tragedy. The toll it takes on them, their families, and our nation’s commitment to fair treatment for all is immeasurable.

A staggering two million people are booked into jail each year in the United States, and the number of people with serious mental illnesses who are incarcerated or homeless is three to five times higher than in the general population. That statistic flies in the face of a wide range of empirical evidence showing that, with appropriate treatment and community supports, people with mental illnesses can recover, achieve their goals, and contribute to our society.

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