WASHINGTON – Inmates in the nation's jails are up to six times as likely to be mentally ill as the general population,according to a report released Monday.
The study found that 14.5 percent of men and 31 percent of women who were jailed had serious mental illnesses. The report includes adults with bipolar disorder,schizophrenia disorders and major depression. It does not include those with other mental illnesses.
Dr. Fred Osher,co-author of the report,said that almost 17 percent of the 13 million adults who enter jail each year have a serious mental illness. The numbers are three to six times higher than the general population. As many as 2 million people with mental illnesses are booked on criminal charges each year,Osher said.
The Council of State Governments Justice Center began this five-site study in May 2002 in Maryland and New York jails. At its conclusion in June 2006,it had screened more than 20,000 men and women entering jails.
There is no standard mandatory screening process for mental illnesses at criminal bookings across the nation. Osher,who is with the council,said that states are allowed to determine individual screening processes for jails and prisons. “Since the study,many jails have picked up the screening process” used in the study,Osher said,adding that it has become one of the most widely used.
The problem,the report says,is the “ineffective use of law enforcement,court and corrections dollars; missed opportunities to link people to effective treatment; and failure to improve public safety.”
Judge Steven Leifman,special adviser on criminal justice and mental health for the Supreme Court of Florida,said,”When I became a judge,I didn't know that I became the gatekeeper of the largest psychiatric facility in the country.”
Leifman said that 90 percent of psychiatric treatment facilities in Florida have been closed,causing a 145 percent increase of adults with mental illness in jails. He said the state needs 10 more prisons to accommodate the growth.
“We have failed those with mental illnesses horribly,” Leifman said.
Osher said the high rates of people with mental illnesses in jails result from repeat drug use or possession,homelessness and a lack of health insurance or access to health care. Adults with mental illnesses are often incarcerated for repeated minor offenses,such as trespassing,petty theft or disorderly conduct.
The Justice Center relies on federal funding from the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act to resolve the problems in the nation's jails. The law helps states establish cooperation between criminal justice and mental health systems.
Osher said Congress has funded the act for the last four years. In 2008,Congress reauthorized the program for an additional five years,expanding training for law enforcement to identify and treat people with mental illnesses more appropriately.
The report recommends continued federal funding for the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act and better screening at jails. The report suggests that alternatives should be explored when incarcerating people with mental illnesses.
“But we recognize that people with illnesses who commit crimes cannot be excused,” Osher said.
The report includes a letter from a mother outlining the tragic outcomes that an individual with mental illnesses faces in the criminal system.
When their adult son became suicidal,the Washington state couple called the local mental health crisis line,which sent the police. The man ended up in a scuffle with police and was shocked with a stun gun. He was arrested and charged with third-degree felony assault of a police officer.
In the letter,the man's mother said that he was withdrawn and depressed while in jail. “[He] would call home crying and tormented by voices and the inability to sleep.” Since his release and recovery he has been denied housing and jobs because he is a “felon.”
“We close mental health wards because of lack of funding and build bigger jails. It is a disgrace,” the mother wrote.