Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

The Identification of Mental Disorders in the Criminal Justice System

Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

The Identification of Mental Disorders in the Criminal Justice System

Article excerpt

Although mental illness is widely recognised as a problem in modern society, it presents particular challenges for the criminal justice system. Research has shown that offenders have higher rates of mental illness than the general community. The Criminology Research Council commissioned a study to assess the level of screening and the instruments used across the jurisdictions by criminal justice agencies. Based on interviews and relevant documentation, the researchers found that, although assessment occurs in all jurisdictions and sectors, there is little consistency in the way offenders are assessed. As a result, the paper argues for a thorough, nationwide system of screening of all accused offenders taken into police custody, to identify those who require a comprehensive mental health assessment. Such assessments need to be repeated as an offender moves through the various stages of the criminal justice system. For there to be an effective and efficient response to mental illness, the authors recommend not only that assessments be shared between criminal justice agencies but also that there be ongoing dialogue between mental health and justice agencies. However, little will be achieved unless courts, police, and parole authorities are given training and resources to better meet the needs of the mentally ill. A more fundamental issue is why over-representation of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system occurs, and the authors call for further research on this key threshold issue.

Toni Makkai


Prevalence rates of a wide variety of mental disorders are disproportionately high in the offender population within the criminal justice system. If the justice system provides an opportunity to identify individuals with serious mental illnesses, they may then be dealt with appropriately, either through the provision of effective treatment to them while in the justice system or by diverting them to the mental health system. Unfortunately, screening and assessment for mental illness in justice agencies across Australia is inconsistent. This report presents the findings from research, based on interviews and the examination of collateral documentation covering criminal justice agencies in each of the states and territories.

The prevalence of mental disorder in offender populations

Rates of the major mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and depression, are between three and five times higher in offender populations than those expected in the general community. Mullen, Holmquist and Ogloff (2003) conducted an extensive review of existing Australian epidemiological data, collating datasets to arrive at composite prevalence data. They reported that 13.5 percent of male prisoners, and 20 percent of female prisoners, had reported having prior psychiatric admission(s). The same study found that 'up to 8% of male and 1 4% of females in... (Australian) prisons have a major mental disorder with psychotic features' (Mullen, Holmquist & Ogloff 2003: 17; see Table 1). In regard to schizophrenia itself, they estimated that the prevalence was between two and five percent for prisoners, and was likely to be similar for those on community orders. The Drug Use Monitoring in Australia program regularly finds high self-reported rates of mental health problems among police detainees (Mouzos, Smith & Hind 2006).

These results reinforce earlier studies of Australian custodial populations (Herrman et al. 1 991) and studies in other countries such as New Zealand (Brinded et al. 2001), Canada (Ogloff 1996), Ireland (Duffy, Linehan & Kennedy 2006) and the United Kingdom (Howard & Christophersen 2003). The prevalence of mental illness is even higher in offenders remanded prior to trial.

These findings are astounding when compared with the general population, where less than one percent of adults are admitted to a hospital for mental health problems in any year (Australian Bureau of Statistics 1 998), and lifetime prevalence rates for schizophrenia and psychotic disorders are 0. …

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