Mass Incarceration and Mental Illness

Unfortunately, criminal justice intervention has become a primary strategy to patch our nation's fragmented mental health system. In a mental health crisis, people with mental illnesses are more likely to encounter police than get medical attention. Nearly 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year, resulting in people with mental illness being disproportionately represented in U.S. jails and prisons. When in jail, people with mental illness stay almost twice as long as other individuals facing similar charges.

Most people with mental illness in jails are non-violent offenders, committing minor offenses. Correctional systems are not equipped to provide mental health treatment, and correctional officers are often not trained to deal with these situations effectively. In many cases, people with mental health conditions are segregated and isolated, which research shows only triggers or worsens psychiatric symptoms. Once released, they are at higher risk of re-arrest and more time behind bars. 

It is time to stop using jails and prisons as default mental health facilities. Instead, we should divert nonviolent offenders with mental illness and substance use disorders into treatment instead of incarceration. This would save lives, foster recovery and reduce costs. We should also invest in community-based treatment that keeps people with mental illness out of jail in the first place-and ultimately saves taxpayer money. Proposals in Congress to reduce Medicaid will only make things worse by reducing access to mental health care for people who encounter law enforcement.

Finally, we should train law enforcement officials and other first responders on how to appropriately respond to people with mental illness, which would help de-escalate crises and increase safety. States and communities that have invested in programs like Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) and other police-mental health partnerships have seen dramatic drops in deaths, serious injuries and other costly and tragic outcomes.
Get Involved and Support this Issue