Criminalization of Mental Illness: It’s a Crime

Aug. 27, 2014

Today, 1 in 5 people in jails and prisons in this country live with a mental illness. About 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have a mental health condition. This criminalization of mental illness is tragic and it’s wrong.

Instead of getting people with mental illness the treatment and support they need, our society too often puts them in jails or prisons, which are the worst places for recovery.

News reports almost routinely revealed cases that should shock the conscience of Americans. In California, the state was forced to adopt detailed regulations after videotapes became public showing prison inmates with mentally illness being doused with pepper spray and violently removed from cells.

Solitary Watch, an advocacy group that focuses on solitary confinement issues in general has begun to circulate videos to document the brutal treatment of inmates with mental illness.

Two years ago, NAMI warned the U.S. Senate that putting people with severe psychiatric symptoms in solitary confinement is like pouring gasoline on a fire. It only intensifies symptoms. Today, a NAMI fact sheet on solitary confinement is being used to influence policymakers as part of the reform movement.

NAMI has worked for years to expand Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) training for police for compassionate responses to people experiencing psychiatric crises. At a Senate hearing this year, NAMI called on the federal government to vigorously promote CIT nationwide.

At NAMI’s National Convention, Sept. 4-7, in Washington, D.C., NAMI will honor Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart of Chicago, a national champion for CIT and other criminal justice reforms.  His staff recently gave me a tour of the Cook County Jail— which, sadly, is considered one of the largest “psychiatric hospitals” in the country.  

Although Sheriff Dart works tirelessly to provide treatment in the jail, it still was sickening to see such a large number of individuals with mental illness confined because they did not get the help they needed. I also had the privilege to visit a community-based center for individuals with mental illness in the same city that provided extensive peer support and a place for people to feel part of a community.  I was struck by the different outcomes for people with mental illness and how much rests on access to good services and supports and diversionary programs.

Besides honoring Sheriff Dart, NAMI’s convention will focus on a range of criminal justice issues. The convention program includes:

  • An “Ask a Cop” workshop.
  • A networking session on “Families and the Criminal Justice System.”
  • A major topic session is entitled “Treatment, Not Jail: Diverting Veterans from Incarceration into Mental Health and Substance Abuse Treatment.”

But criminalization is more than a policy topic. For many people, it can be an immediate, urgent crisis. Every month, NAMI’s national Helpline gets hundreds of telephone calls for legal help:

  • Individuals want to know whether it is safe to call 911 if they or someone they love is in crisis.
  • Families want to know what to do if a loved one has been taken away by police.
  • Families struggle to cope with having loved ones in prison, sometimes for years, and worry about whether they are getting the help they need.

What can you do to help? Send a message to Congress to pass the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act this year to support alternatives to incarceration for youth and adults with mental illness.

Click here to take action

If you need more information, please feel free to also contact the NAMI Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). NAMI stands for help and hope. We welcome your support.

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