Mental Illness

“Locking up mentally ill people who are not dangerous makes no sense. They don’t have access to the treatment they need. In jail, they are subject to being abused and sometimes inflict abuse in return. By the very nature of their disease, mentally ill inmates cannot follow orders, which makes managing a jail with so many mentally ill inmates almost impossible.” – Pat Nolan, Director of CCJR 


Locking up the non-dangerous mentally ill makes no sense. Up to 30% of the inmates behind bars have a diagnosed mental illness. Of those, 60% have not been convicted of any crime, but cannot afford to make bail. Three-quarters have been charged with non-violent offenses. Because mental illness often causes challenges with following rules, those afflicted tend to stay in jail longer and upon release are at a higher risk of recidivism than individuals without mental illness. They are not bad people; they are merely sick, and need treatment.

Having large cohorts of mentally ill prisoners makes managing incarceration facilities more difficult. Moreover, the cost of incarceration is higher than providing help in mental health treatment centers. By moving mentally ill out of jails and prisons, the corrections operations would be easier to manage, and most important, those afflicted with mental illness would be treated more humanely.

The human toll of incarcerating the mentally ill—and its cost to taxpayers—is staggering. Jails spend two to three times more on adults with mental illness than on those without. Yet, large numbers of people with mental illness continue to cycle through the criminal justice system, often resulting in tragic outcomes for these individuals and their families, while putting corrections officers at unnecessary risk.


Conservative Solutions

• Encourage coordination between law enforcement and mental health providers so that non-dangerous mentally ill persons receive treatment without being booked into jail.

• Provide individualized treatment and services that address the specific mental health and substance abuse needs of inmates.

• Continue support for mental health courts and crisis intervention teams.

• Authorize veterans treatment courts, which are specially structured to help veterans who suffer from PTSD, substance addiction, and other mental health conditions.

• Help state and local agencies identify people with mental illness at each phase of the criminal justice system in order to connect them with appropriate mental health services.

• Increase training for law enforcement officers in how to respond appropriately to incidents involving a person with a mental illness.

• Develop comprehensive individual transition plans for inmates that coordinate health, housing, medical, employment, mental health services and substance abuse treatment when they are released from incarceration.


Other Resources

PBS: Mental Illnesses have become all too prevalent in America’s jails and prisons. PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly highlights the extent of this problem and what is being done around the country to reverse this worrisome trend.


Washington Post: A shocking number of mentally ill Americans end up in prison instead of treatment.


Opinion - The Crazy Talk About Bringing Back Asylums


National Institutes of Corrections: Mentally Ill in Correctional Facilities.


Other Organizations