NAMI Calls For Congressional Hearings Following Justice Department Report

Lack Of Treatment Cited As Cause Of Criminalization Of Mental Illness; Executive Actions Also Proposed

Jul 12 1999

Arlington, VA - The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill today called for Congressional hearings and executive action in response to the release of a special report by the U.S. Department of Justice that estimates that over a quarter of a million inmates in America's prisons and jails suffer from mental illness.

"The Justice Department report confirms what we have known for years," said NAMI's Executive Director, Laurie Flynn. "Prisons and jails have become the mental hospitals of the 1990's. What the report doesn't show are the root causes of the problem---the failure of America's mental health system to provide adequate treatment. The criminalization of persons with mental illnesses is the result of a broader system in crisis."

"The Justice Department study will be little more than a waste of the taxpayer's money unless it becomes a foundation for action" Flynn said. "NAMI calls on Attorney General Janet Reno and Congressional leaders to take the following immediate actions:

  • Target funds to provide grants to states and localities for the establishment of "mental health courts" to divert nonviolent offenders with mental disorders from incarceration into treatment.
  • Utilize funds from the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program to finance crisis intervention team (CIT) initiatives, which have proven effective in facilitating access to treatment for low-level offenders with mental illnesses and reducing criminalization.
  • Amend federal law to allow states receiving prison funds under the Violent Offender and Truth-in-Sentencing grant program to use them to develop improved screening and treatment systems for inmates with mental illnesses in state prisons.
  • Hold hearings on the root causes of the criminalization of persons with mental illnesses and identify further steps to reverse the trend; including the strengthening of outpatient treatment programs upon release.

"Each reform reflects a reality that is within our grasp," Flynn said. "All we need is the will to act. Ultimately, Congress must help to provide the leadership necessary to meet the challenge."

In 1992, NAMI published its own study, Criminalizing the Seriously Mentally Ill: The Abuse of Jails as Mental Hospitals, which found:

  • The vast majority of individuals with mental illnesses who are arrested are charged with trivial misdemeanors that are often manifestations of illness. Persons charged with more serious crimes usually have illnesses that have gone untreated.
  • Police in 84% of the nation's jails receive either no training or fewer than three hours training on the problems of persons with mental illness.
  • Psychiatric care in jails varies widely more than 20 percent provide no access to psychiatric resources.
  • Less than 50 percent of jails do not know whether seriously mentally ill inmates receive any outpatient psychiatric care once they are released. Those that do know report that only 36 percent receive follow-treatment.

"Nothing has gotten much better since then," Flynn observed. "America shouldn't have to wait another seven years for the Federal government to act."

U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics