Mental Health and the Justice System
Prevalence rates of a wide variety of mental disorders are disproportionately high in the offender population within the criminal justice system. If the justice system provides an opportunity to identify individuals with serious mental illnesses, they may then be dealt with appropriately, either through the provision of effective treatment to them while in the justice system or by diverting them to the mental health system.
Many previous reports have identified opportunities for improving the criminal justice system's response to people with mental illness and cognitive impairments, but action has been slow and fragmented. The best intentions of state governments over the last 10 years, numerous calls for change, and repeated goals and commitments under state plans have not resulted in significant improvements. As a result, many in the sector feel fatigued and despondent about the prospect of change.
Half of people incarcerated in prisons and two-thirds of people in jails had either current “serious psychological distress” or a history of mental health problems. Yet only about a third of those reporting serious psychological distress were currently receiving treatment, and only a slightly greater share of people with a history of mental health problems was currently being treated.
Now more patients than ever are being treated in jail rather than at a mental health facility. Cook County Jail has become one of the largest, if not the largest, mental health care provider in the United States.
Today, about 14.5 percent of men and 31 percent of women in jails have a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder, compared to 3.2 and 4.9 percent, respectively, in the general population.
Article adapted from On Life Support: Public Health in the Age of Mass Incarceration
The rate of mental illness among people involved with the criminal justice system is
much higher than the community generally. Around 40 per cent of prison entrants
have previously been told they have a mental illness.
The health issues of prisoners within NSW jails are rarely placed in the national spotlight. There is a prevailing thought that those who have been convicted for a crime deserve to “do the time” behind bars. Yet the isolated environment of jail can be a trigger point for mental illnesses to develop. There is also strong evidence of mental illness sufferers making up a large majority of the personnel in NSW correction services.