Why Addressing Mental Health Issues Means Reforming The U.S. Prison System

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, national mental illness debates have taken center stage alongside gun regulation conversations. Liberals and conservatives alike have acknowledged that our current mental health system is highly flawed — currently, millions of Americans are unable to access the care they need, instead forced to bear the burden of their illnesses alone and without treatment. Yet little attention has been paid the role our criminal justice system plays in this web of issues.

Over half of the U.S. prison population is mentally ill, and people who suffer from mental illnesses are represented in the criminal justice system at rates between two and four times higher than in the general population. Given that studies find people with mental illnesses to be no more prone to violence than those without mental illnesses, the root of this overrepresentation in prison clearly lies in our mental health system’s shortcomings. Instead of treating the underlying biological and environmental causes of these disorders, we are criminalizing and incarcerating the mentally ill:

“Most people [with mental illness] by far are incarcerated because of very minor crimes that are preventable,” says Bob Bernstein, the Executive Director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. “People are homeless for reasons that shouldn’t occur, people don’t have basic treatment for reasons that shouldn’t occur and they get into trouble because of crimes of survival.”

The U.S. boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world; we imprison more of our own citizens than any society in human history. Of the 2.3 million people that occupy our jails and prisons, over 60 percent of inmates are nonviolent offenders. These are people who pose no threat to society and would benefit much more from rehabilitation programs, mental health treatment, and/or other social services than from spending years behind bars.

Because prisons were never designed to serve as mental health facilities, today they find themselves entirely unprepared to handle the mass quantity of people with mental illnesses that populate the system. Prisons generally fail to address the underlying issues that confront people with mental illnesses, often even exasperating these conditions.

Moreover, our broken prison system is a huge drain on America’s economy. The government currently spends over $70 billion per year on corrections, a figure that has risen at six times the rate of education spending over the past two decades.

Fortunately, the most recent data shows that America’s prison population has declined for the first time in nearly 40 years. If politicians are truly committed to addressing mental health issues, perhaps they’ll support a concerted societal effort to change the way we perceive the correctional system — as well as the way we understand mental illness — in order to turn this small victory into an ongoing trend.

Our guest blogger is Rachel Howard, a Health policy intern with the Center for American Progress.