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Decriminalizing Mental Illness:
Making the Case for Justice Reinvestment during Difficult Economic Times

Is your state experiencing a budget crisis? Unless you are very lucky, your state government is looking for ways to cut, and mental health services are probably at the top of the list. At the same time, most states are grappling with the ballooning costs of jails and prisons. During the criminal justice symposium, “Making the Case for Justice Reinvestment during Difficult Economic Times,” two national experts grappled with how to advocate for mental health services—especially for individuals at greatest risk of involvement with the criminal justice system—when state budgets are strained to the limit.

Pete Earley, longtime NAMI member and author of Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, discussed the story of his son’s mental illness and involvement with the criminal justice system. Mr. Earley’s story reinforces what NAMI members know best: telling your family’s story is the most convincing way to humanize the tragedy of criminalization. At the same time, he discussed his investigation of the Miami-Dade County jail, where there are so many detainees living with mental illness that they have their own floor of the jail.

Earley’s investigation revealed that detainees living with mental illness were packed several to a cell, often stripped bare of any clothes and left to sleep on the floor or a metal bunk without sheets. Most of the men he interviewed were experiencing psychosis and clearly getting no treatment. Many languished for months before facing trial.

This human tragedy is also a financial disaster for most states. People living with serious mental illness crowd jails and prisons where they stay longer than others who are being held on similar charges and require costly care and additional staff, which correctional facilities cannot afford. Worse, once released, people living with mental illness are unlikely to get the treatment and support they need and are likely to wind up right back in jail. Often, the charges they face are for crimes like disturbing the peace or minor property crimes.

States pay for a cycle of incarceration that ultimately benefits no one: the person living with mental illness does not get the help he needs, public safety does not improve and law enforcement and correctional officers find themselves frustrated because they don’t have the capacity to provide the care that people need.

Dr. Fred Osher addressed how states can break this cycle, save money and provide treatment for people at the greatest risk of involvement with the criminal justice system. Dr. Osher is a longtime NAMI member, and works as the director of the health components of the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center’s initiatives. He and the Justice Center work with several states on justice reinvestment—the strategy of taking money currently being used on jails and prisons and reinvesting it in front-end services to prevent incarceration.

The justice reinvestment process involves careful evaluation of existing corrections spending to find places where funds are being used inefficiently. The funds identified are then used to intervene earlier in the criminal justice system. In Kansas, the Justice Center helped to analyze spending and found that 65 percent of prison admissions were due to parole or probation revocations, costing taxpayers $53 million annually. In addition, a high percentage of the revocations were due to violations of conditions, such as alcohol and drug use, and an even higher percentage of probation and parole violators had a demonstrated need for mental health or substance abuse treatment.

Working with Kansas lawmakers, the Justice Center helped to devise a series of reforms that included incentives for increasing treatment, vocational and educational training for prisoners. Early data suggests that probation and parole revocations are down dramatically, and the state is expected to save more than $80 million in corrections spending, and save having to build almost 1,300 new prison beds.

This example is just one of several justice reinvestment projects being spearheaded by the Justice Center. Justice reinvestment is saving money and improving lives across the country.

NAMI advocates can learn more about Justice Reinvestment on the Council of State Governments’ website. Advocates will also want to check out NAMI’s fact sheet The High Cost of Cutting Mental Health: Criminal Justice or view Dr. Osher’s presentation from the symposium. To learn more about Pete Earley and his work, go to www.peteearley.com.


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