Why addressing Mental Health Means Reforming U.S. Prison System

Our mental health system seems highly flawed – currently millions of Americans are unable to access the care they need, instead forced to bear the burden of their illnesses alone and without treatment. Yet little attention has been paid and how the role of our criminal justice system plays in this web of issues.

Over half of the U.S. prison population is mentally ill, and people who suffer from mental illness are represented in the criminal justice system at rates between two and four times higher than in the general population. Given that studies find people with mental illnesses to be no more prone to violence than those without mental illnesses, the root of this overrepresentation in prison clearly lies in our mental health system’s shortcomings. Instead of treating the underlying biological and environmental causes of these disorders, we are criminalizing and incarcerating the mentally ill.

“Most people [with mental illness] by far are incarcerated because of very minor crimes that are preventable. People are homeless for reasons that shouldn’t occur, people don’t have basic treatment and they get into trouble because of crimes of survival.” Bob Bernstein, the Executive Director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

Because prisons were never designed to serve as mental health facilities, today they find themselves entirely unprepared to handle the mass quantity of people with mental illnesses that populate the system. Prisons generally fail to address the underlying issues that confront people with mental illness, often even exasperating these conditions.

Moreover, our broken prison system is a huge drain on America’s economy. The government currently spends over $70 billion per year on corrections.

February 8, 2012
by Rachel Howard
For full text see http://thinkprogress.org/health/2013/02/08/1561341/mental-health-prison-reform/

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