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 


 One of the most vexing problems over the last 40 years has been the large number of non-dangerous, mentally ill persons in the criminal justice system.

The human toll of incarcerating the mentally ill—and its cost to taxpayers—is staggering. There are an estimated 2 million people with mental illness booked into U.S. jails each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).  Jails spend two to three times more on adults with mental illness than on those without. 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, and often injury to law enforcement.

Non-violent inmates with mental illnesses don’t belong in jails and prisons. They are not bad people, they are merely sick, and need treatment. Tackling mental illnesses in our criminal justice system will require a focus on rehabilitation, under the care of trained mental health professionals. The police and sheriffs currently operate the default mental health system, not by choice, but because the states have eliminated most acute care psychiatric beds. Jail ends up being the only place available to take someone that is having an acute psychiatric episode.

In late 2016, Congress passed the bipartisan 21st Century “Cures Act”. The Act will expand veterans’ courts, mental health courts, and other pre-trial diversion programs for the mentally ill. The new law also allocates funding for new biomedical research initiatives to develop treatments for cancer, opioid addiction, and other complex diseases. The impact of these illnesses extends to America’s institutions of incarceration, where recidivism rates remain too high, health care costs are soaring, and illnesses remain unaddressed. Lastly, the Cures Act provides funding to further train law enforcement officers and first responders to deal with those with mental illnesses.

The Cures Act aims to jumpstart innovation in modern medicine and effective treatments to diseases that are diminishing the quality of life for Americans. This law is spot on, and is an important step in addressing the needs of those with mental illness without sending them to prison. But there’s plenty of room for states to take more initiative in reforming the way we house and treat the mentally ill in our criminal justice system.

Massachusetts, under the leadership of Governor Charlie Baker (R), is pioneering a unique approach to treating mentally ill inmates. Bridgewater State Hospital currently houses individuals convicted of crimes as well as some awaiting trial. Governor Baker plans to relocate the correctional officers to solely focus on facility security, while increasing clinical services to inhabitants inside. He understands that law enforcement officers do not possess necessary training and skills to handle mental health episodes like professional experts do. 

We encourage local and state governments to continue to find innovative solutions to better treat those who are incarcerated with a mental illness. Reforming our system to better handle the mentally ill is morally right, fiscally smart, and will allow for law enforcement and correctional officers to focus on public safety.