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Serious Mental Illnesses among Nation’s Jail Populations

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WASHINGTON (June 1, 2009) – A new study released today of more than 20,000 men and women entering jail offers the most accurate accounting in more than two decades of the number of adults with serious mental illnesses in these facilities.

Using screening instruments to identify individuals entering jails with the most serious mental illnesses and the greatest need for comprehensive and continuous treatment, a team of researchers from the nonpartisan Council of State Governments Justice Center and Policy Research Associates found that 14.5 percent of males and 31 percent of females—or 16.9 percent overall—met that criteria. The percentage of women with serious mental illnesses in jail is double that of men—a particularly troubling finding given the overall growth in the female jail population and the lack of research on the reasons for this overrepresentation.

These estimates are three to six times higher than the general population, and indicate that as many as 2 million bookings of people with serious mental illnesses may occur each year. The findings, published today in the journal Psychiatric Services, underscore the challenges faced by jail administrators to address the needs of individuals with mental illnesses in the face of budget cuts and extremely limited resources.

At a Capitol Hill briefing today, Judge Steven Leifman, Special Advisor on Criminal Justice and Mental Health for the Supreme Court of Florida, said, “Our criminal justice system was never intended to be the safety net for the public mental health system. Unfortunately though, that is exactly what it has become. Too often, people land in jail for minor offenses directly related to symptoms of untreated mental illnesses because of an inadequate system of community-based services and supports. Only through systemwide collaboration and partnerships can we begin to close the revolving door to the criminal justice system which, today, results in increased recidivism, devastation to our families and communities, wasteful government spending, and the shameful warehousing in jails and prisons of some of the most vulnerable and neglected members of our communities.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) last year led efforts to reauthorize the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act (MIOTCRA). The law authorizes federal grants to help state and local governments create or expand mental health courts; offer treatment and training programs to provide needed supports and services and to reduce repeat offending; and teach law enforcement officers and agents to recognize and react to situations involving individuals with mental
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illnesses. Earlier this year, Leahy, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, led a bipartisan coalition of senators in pressing for full funding of MIOTCRA. Leahy said, “All too often, people with mental illness find themselves in a revolving door between the criminal justice system and the streets of our communities, committing a series of minor offenses. The alarming results of this study confirm a pressing need to confront the unique challenges posed by mentally ill offenders. We must do all we can to support law enforcement, courts, and corrections as they address the needs of this population and work to keep our neighborhoods safe.” While there are people with mental illnesses that need to be incarcerated, the findings confirm that more needs to be done to address the large numbers of men and women who would be more effectively treated in the community to stop the cycle of contact with the criminal justice system. “Jails at the county and municipal level were never intended to replace the need for a strong community-based mental health system.

Jails are rapidly becoming a core element in the mental health system,” said Art Wallenstein, Director of the Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation. “This is unacceptable for those whose mental illness is the primary driving condition – not criminal behavior. Better alternatives exist and they must be encouraged and supported. Jail is not the answer for addressing mental illness in this country.”

A brief describing the findings and possible explanations for the results can be found at . Other related resources, including the Psychiatric Services article and a personal account from a parent of an individual with mental illness who was incarcerated, can be found at . About the Study

The Council of State Governments Justice Center, in partnership with Policy Research Associates, conducted a five-site study, with initial funding from the National Institute of Justice to develop a screening instrument for mental illness, and additional support from the National Institute of Corrections to generate the findings of this study. The study used structured clinical interviews to determine the presence of mental illnesses in a sample of individuals screened at booking in Maryland and New York jails. Screening data were obtained for 11,168 adult men and women entering five local jails between May 2002 and January 2003, and 10,240 adult men and women between November 2005 and June 2006. About CSG Justice Center The Council of State Governments Justice Center is a national nonprofit organization that serves policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels from all branches of government. It provides practical, nonpartisan advice and consensus-driven strategies—informed by available evidence—to increase public safety and strengthen communities.

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