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Addressing Mental Illness in the Criminal Justice System

December 1, 2009
According to a report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, funded in part by the Office of Justice Programs' (OJP) National Institute of Justice (NIJ), 16.9 percent of the adults in a sample of local jails had a serious mental illness. That’s three to six times the rate of the general population. And while the serious mental illness rate was 14 percent for men, it was 31 percent for women. If these rates were applied to 13 million jail admissions reported in 2007, the study findings suggest that more than two million bookings of a person with a serious mental illness occur every year. Many offenders with mental illnesses don’t receive treatment during incarceration. Without treatment, conditions can worsen. Offenders can become a greater threat to themselves and to others when they leave jail or prison. This is not only a disservice to the offenders and their families; it is a threat to public safety. Mental health cases remain a challenge within the criminal justice system. A recent article by The Associated Press highlighted the tax mental health cases place on law enforcement and emergency workers. A local police chief was quoted saying, "Because they're [mental health patients] completely falling through the cracks," he said. "They're not cracks, they're chasms." At the Justice Department, we see those chasms and are working to address this problem. The OJP Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) administers the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program (JMHCP). This initiative helps states, tribes and units of local government design and implement collaborative efforts between criminal justice and mental health systems. The program’s goal is to improve access to effective treatment for people with mental illnesses involved with the justice system. This contact can be through arrest, court appearances, community based supervision, incarceration or in the community following incarceration. Many law enforcement officials across the country are partnering with local mental health advocates and mental health service providers. Together, they develop strategies to make it easier for law enforcement to connect people with mental illnesses to much needed services. This helps to minimize the likelihood that they will just cycle through the system again. These programs, often referred to as Crisis Intervention Teams or Co-Responder Models, are eligible to receive funding under the JMHCP. Five jurisdictions have used BJA funds to start or enhance law enforcement response programs for people with mental illness. In addition, BJA has partnered with the Council of State Governments Justice Center on a number of publications that address law enforcement response to individuals with mental illnesses. These include Essential Elements of Specialized Law Enforcement-Based Programs and Strategies for Effective Law Enforcement Training. OJP and other Justice Department components have also launched collaborative projects with the Department of Health and Human Services to find better ways to help state and local governments improve the response to people with mental illness involved in the criminal justice system. BJA joined with the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to provide technical assistance to states to build on existing efforts and replicate them statewide. These partners worked with the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the GAINS Center to sponsor a national conference in 2009, “Smart Responses in Tough Times: Achieving Better Outcomes for People with Mental Illness Involved in the Justice System.” Over 450 people attended the conference, including many representatives from our JMHCP grantees and applicants. Together, conference attendees discussed how to address homeless populations, identify those in need of specialized responses, prioritize populations with co-occurring disorders, use data to identify a target population, and implement sustainable initiatives. Highlights from the conference along with materials and videos of selected plenary sessions can be found, here. The Department of Justice’s commitment to addressing mental health within the criminal justice system will continue. In 2009, OJP awarded 43 JMHCP grants totaling more than $8 million. Additional funding to support training and technical assistance efforts was also awarded. Also, many of the grants awarded under the Second Chance Act Offender Reentry Initiative are supporting mental health treatment as part of comprehensive reentry efforts. We will continue to work with our partners to explore new ways to help states and local communities improve mental health services for people in the criminal justice system.

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Updated April 7, 2017