Criminalization of mental health

As a graduate social work student, I am very concerned about what seems to be the criminalization of people with mental health issues. There have been a growing number of people with mental illness in our jails and prisons since deinstitutionalization took place from 1955 to 1980.

Over 15 percent of prisoners are suffering from some form of mental illness. In fact, the Los Angeles County prison and Riker’s Island in New York house more persons with mental illness than any hospital in the United States. People who have mental illness are six times more likely to be incarcerated than the regular population. The development of diversion programs such a mental health courts and drug courts has been a small remedy.

Since deinstitutionalization over 60 years ago many people with mental illness have been displaced. They are often homeless and end up in the criminal justice system for petty crimes, such as stealing food, trespassing, disturbing the peace, and drug procession. The police sometimes arrest these individuals in order to get them into mental health courts so they can get connected to services.

Jails and prisons are not good places for people with mental illness as they often have troubleunderstanding and following the simple rules and they get singled out and harassed by other prisoners and guards. They are arrested more often and tend to be incarcerated longer than the regular population. There is a high rate of suicide attempts by people with mental illness in our prisons.

The real solution is to divert people with mental illness out of the criminal justice system all together and plug them into community-based services. We urgently need policies and more funding to strengthen and expand our community based services for people with mental illness

Donna M. Wilbur

Jamaica Plain resident

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