The Mentally Ill Don't Belong in Jail

By Gondles, James A., Jr. | Corrections Today, February 2005 | Go to article overview

The Mentally Ill Don't Belong in Jail


Gondles, James A., Jr., Corrections Today


The criminal justice system does not pick and choose those who enter our nation's jails and prisons. Law enforcement officers on the street make the choice to arrest an individual, and the judicial system makes the determination that an individual must be placed under correctional supervision. Most important, that individual makes the decision to commit the act that sets the whole process in motion. Yet, correctional staff have an obligation to care for and treat every individual who enters our systems and to prepare them, to the best of our abilities, for their eventual return to society.

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The number of individuals in state mental hospitals peaked at more than 550,000 in the mid-1950s. Today, there are approximately 70,000 individuals with severe mental illness housed in public psychiatric hospitals. In contrast, one in every eight state inmates is receiving some mental health therapy or counseling services and nearly 10 percent of state inmates are receiving psychotropic medications, including antidepressants, stimulants, sedatives, tranquilizers or other antipsychotic drugs.

Correctional agencies are often inadequately equipped or trained to house and treat those with mental illness. Yet, in many jurisdictions, correctional agencies have become the default provider of housing and services to those with mental illness. The two largest providers of mental health services in the United States are the Los Angeles County Jail and Riker's Island in New York.

Despite the proliferation of mentally ill offenders in the criminal justice system, these individuals are not often fit subjects for retribution or punishment, the typical reasons that individuals are confined to correctional programs or facilities. The notion that the prospect of incarceration will deter an individual with a mental illness from committing a crime does not apply to a population that cannot fully comprehend the consequences of its actions, especially in cases where the crime is a direct result of an illness. …

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The Mentally Ill Don't Belong in Jail
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