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  • Erin Haney

Is the Criminal Justice System Equipped to Handle Those Suffering from Mental Illness?

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

As our society progresses and evolves, we understand more about mental illness and mental illness has become less stigmatized as a result. This new awareness and understanding of mental health issues must carry over into the criminal justice system. But is anything really changing in this area of the criminal justice system?

If an inmate was suffering from cancer, steps would be taken to make sure that this person received the proper medical treatment while in the custody of the state. This proper treatment goes to our basic human dignity, and most would expect nothing less from our police departments and prisons. But what if the inmate was suffering from an illness that wasn’t so physically obvious? According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, individuals with mental health needs make up a large proportion of the US correctional population. An estimated 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners, and 64 percent of jail inmates have mental health problems. One has to wonder if these statistics would be different if mentally ill persons were treated as such and were handled differently and properly earlier on in the adjudication process. Whether they should be there or not, mentally ill offenders often continue to receive inadequate care once in the system. Studies show that housing mentally ill offenders in the criminal justice system is quite costly. In addition to high health care costs, mentally ill inmates tend to have higher rates of prison misconduct and recidivism perpetuating their existence in the system. Further, studies have also shown that prison conditions often cause preexisting mental illness to become worse, especially as a result of fear of victimization. If an individual is severely mentally ill, is incarceration really the answer? What about treatment, rehabilitation, or medication as alternatives? Our society has become startlingly complacent in dealing with those suffering from mental illness, if simply incarcerating them is our first answer.

There are other questions regarding mental illness that we, as a forward-thinking, progressive society in 2016, should be asking. For instance, what steps are being taken to ensure that our police departments and prisons are taking the necessary measures to treat mentally ill persons properly. Are law enforcement officers being trained to spot signs of mental illness or social disorders and how to respond and interact appropriately? In a recent article, Lt. Michael Woody discusses the mental illness training he went through during his 25 years of service. Through reading articles and talking to people in the mental health profession, he realized that roughly 10% of their customers were not only mentally ill but also in crisis. Lt. Woody believes that the department lacked sufficient training in how to deal with these individuals. Further exacerbating the situation, the State of Ohio Police Officer Training Council reduced the requirements to teach recruits how to deal with persons in mental crisis to 2 hours of training regarding handling the mentally ill and the mentally incapacitated. Recruits only received one hour of training to equip them to deal with about 10% of the problems they would encounter on the streets. Lt. Woody went on to discuss the inadequacies of training that the recruits received, and as a former director of training, he implores other departments to be proactive in teaching officers how to deal with persons suffering from mental illness. His response to departments that say they cannot afford to provide mental health training: you cannot afford to not provide it.

Although there is clearly more that can be done to address mental health issues as they relate to the criminal justice system, one could argue that our society has progressed and will continue to progress as people become more aware of the issues that exist. For instance, a new focus on the treatment of people with mental illness within the criminal justice system in the 1980s led to a range of legislative reforms to ensure that offenders suffering from a mental illness were provided with adequate treatment and that those offenders who were found unfit to be tried were not detained indefinitely. These provisions were the foundation for the Mental Health Act of 1990, which sets out the current procedure for dealing with issues of mental illness. While steps have been taken to remedy the lack of mental health awareness in the criminal justice system, there is certainly more to be done still.

As professionals within the criminal justice system, attorneys and judges must be aware of how mental health issues will affect their ability to do their jobs effectively. Particular note should be given to how mental illness will affect how an individual is sentenced. Part three of the Mental Health Act provides a magistrate with discretion to make a finding that a defendant is suffering from a mental illness or condition. Section 32(3) allows a magistrate to dismiss proceedings against a defendant considered to be developmentally disabled or suffering from mental illness, and discharge the defendant into the care of a responsible person. According to the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, only a small number of offenders are dealt with in this manner, with 505 persons out of 111,045 for whom criminal charges were filed in 1996 having their charges dismissed under the Act. Once mental illness is brought up at sentencing, a judge must sentence an offender on the basis that issues of mental illness have been excluded, and that offender is fit to go forward with the proceedings. However, this is different than saying the mental condition of the offender no longer has relevance for the purposes of sentencing. While there is no clear answer as to what types of mental issues may be taken into account at sentencing, these issues will often be broader than those illnesses taken into account under the Mental Health Act.


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