Report: New thinking needed to break cycle of incarceration of mentally ill populations

150 150 Nadine Ono

San Quentin State Prison (Photo Credit: Zboralski/Wikimedia)

Work being done in how California counties deal with the incarcerated mentally ill points toward a movement here and across the country to create smarter criminal justice policies.

A significant percentage of inmates in jails and prisons across the country suffer from mental illness, which is straining the limited resources of many over-burdened systems. Special populations such as the mentally ill increase the costs of incarceration because they typically cycle through the system more frequently, often stay longer and are in need of more services.

Several California counties facing court-ordered caps on their jail populations are looking at better ways to deal with the mentally ill population in its jails. It is also one of the areas of focus of CA Fwd’s Justice System Change Initiative (J-SCI), which is currently partnered with Riverside, San Bernardino and El Dorado counties to lower jail populations by transforming their criminal justice systems.

A report issued earlier this year from the Vera Institute for Justice outlines a framework in which the mental health and criminal justice fields can collaborate to develop programs aimed at reducing recidivism among the mentally ill.

“The Vera report supports our work in J-SCI because it really points out how underdeveloped our community systems are to deal with the forensic mental health population,” said Kathy Jett, J-SCI policy consultant. “We need to really expand the services that are available to individuals leaving incarceration and prevent them from being incarcerated to begin with.”

According to the report, 15 percent of men and nearly a third of the women in jails and prisons have serious mental illness. Researchers found the rate of serious mental illness in state prison populations is two to four times higher than the populations in the community at large. The mentally ill face a number of additional factors that may put them in contact with the criminal justice system and then keep them cycling through jail. Those factors can include poverty, homelessness, unemployment and a lack of family or community engagement.

The report’s framework for addressing the problem is based on prevention and early intervention as well as recovery-oriented practice and evidence-informed care, which examines risk factors faced by the inmates.

“The Vera report really speaks to the fact that most of our interventions have been case management oriented and that’s not really adequate to keep this population from being re-incarcerated,” said Jett. “We really need to look at a lot of the environmental issues such as housing, and what are they doing with their free time, including them in classes, including them in work skills, studies and education and these are typically not what case management programs have done.”

Jett added that it takes a dedicated team including members from the mental health and probation departments, among others, to work with this population to prevent recidivism.

Some counties across the state are working toward lowering their mentally ill incarcerated population, including Los Angeles County. Last year, District Attorney Jackie Lacey created a comprehensive plan to safely divert the mentally ill offenders from jail. The plan includes mental health training for law enforcement officers to better interact with the mentally ill, as well as plans to work with more community-based organizations to house and treat mentally ill individuals, thus keeping them out of jail.

The county’s Board of Supervisors also approved and funded a separate plan to divert 1,000 low-level mentally ill inmates from the jails by creating an Office of Diversion and Re-Entry within the Department of Health Services.

The work being done through the J-SCI partnerships and in counties such as Los Angeles show more agencies are critically examining corrections policies including the handling of mentally ill inmates. The authors of the Vera report hope their framework will open the doors to new ways of thinking about the relationship between the mentally ill and the criminal justice system and possibly lead to system-wide reform.


Nadine Ono

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