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  • Melissa Kucemba

Behavioral Health Initiatives as an Alternative to Incarceration

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

Criminal justice reform legislation is critical in reducing mass incarceration and recidivism rates. In December, 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act, which revises U.S. mandatory minimum sentencing laws, expands early release credits for prisoners, and provides funding for recidivism-reducing programs for prisoners. Although legislation at state and federal levels helps amend our current criminal justice system and assist people that are already incarcerated, local communities have taken a more novel approach to reducing incarceration rates by instituting pre-trial initiatives. Behavioral health and the criminal justice system are closely intertwined, and alternative sentencing programs can help address the underlying issues that lead a person to incarceration.

Incarcerating a person can exacerbate issues he or she faced before incarceration, such as financial hardship, homelessness, or drug addiction, because of the lack of services in jail and prison to assist people and the negative stigma that creates a barrier for formerly-incarcerated people to access resources upon release. Harvard’s Reentry Study found that inmates with mental health and addiction issues are significantly less likely to find stable housing, work income, and family support upon release from prison, which heightens their risk for “diminished mental health, drug use and relapse.” Within three years of being released from state prisons, about half of inmates battling addiction will get convicted of a new crime.

Too often, people with behavioral health issues end up incarcerated rather than receiving proper treatment or resources. About two million people with a mental illness are booked into a jail each year. Furthermore, the United States has focused on criminalizing drug addiction rather than examining and treating it as a public health issue. Unfortunately, jails have become one of the most common drug detox centers in the country. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has created the Stepping Up Initiative, in which it partners with national organizations, including local law enforcement associations, to divert people with mental illness and drug addiction from jails and prisons. Additionally, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department launched a pilot program at the Markham Courthouse in 2015 to screen people for mental health issues and sentence those identified to mandatory mental health counseling. Counseling begins the same day within the courthouse, and participants are then released back into their communities rather than being sent to jail.

Over the past few years, local counties have been addressing the issue of mental health in jails by not only expanding rehabilitative services within jails but by forming innovative courts and building behavioral health centers as alternatives to incarceration. In 2016, Davidson County in Tennessee formed the Day Reporting Center. Rather than sending a person to jail or prison, the Davidson County court sentences a person to the Day Reporting Center, which places eligible individuals in a structured and intensive outpatient program. The court may require participants who are suffering from a mental health issue or drug addiction to attend mandatory classes that can help them get their lives back on track and address the issues that commonly lead to incarceration. Such classes may include topics on alcohol and drug education, parenting, or anger management.

Furthermore, some counties have geared alternative sentencing programs towards young adults. In 2012, emerging adults made up ten percent of the U.S. population; however, they made up twenty-nine percent of arrests and twenty-one percent of people admitted into adult prisons. Texas has formed Community Courts that provide assistance with behavioral health as well as educational and vocational needs for youthful offenders. In 2016, the Second Chance Community Improvement Program in Dallas, Texas, began a Community Court geared towards young adults. The program allows participants to receive their GEDs and provides them with counseling and job services. When participants complete the program, their cases are dismissed and their records are expunged.

Criminalizing drug addiction and increasing the number of jails and prisons in the United States has exacerbated the public health issue of drug addiction. By diverting state and federal funds to alternative behavioral health programs, the government and tax payers can ultimately save money by not having to bear the cost of housing people in jail and prison. Institutingalternative pre-trial programs and centers helps people avoid jail and prison altogether because properly treating people with mental health and addiction issues allows people to combat the issue and gain re-control of their lives.


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