Effective criminal justice reform must address mental illness as a contributing factor to incarceration and recidivism, a bipartisan Senate Judiciary Committee hearing emphasized last week.
“On a daily basis, individuals … are literally running into the criminal justice system or a very broken mental health system. And it seems that with the broken mental health system, many will eventually end up in the justice system,” said committee chair Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in his opening remarks.
“In order to accomplish criminal justice reform, we must tackle the mental health crisis, including the shortage of psychiatric beds,” he added.
Citing a 2015 Urban Institute study, Grassley shared that around 25 percent of the U.S. correctional population suffered from a mental illness and that few received care for their condition.
Treatment Advocacy Center, a Virginia-based nonprofit, offered similar data in a 2014 report.
“In 44 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, a prison or jail in that state holds more individuals with serious mental illness than the largest remaining state psychiatric hospital.”
Texas Sheriff Susan L. Pamerleau, one of five witnesses who spoke at the hearing, noted that in her county, “Over 700 of the 3,500 people in our jail are being treated for some type of mental illness. Of these, approximately 60 percent have been in and out of our jail six or more times.”
She added, “Most have not committed serious crimes but are in jail because of untreated mental illness.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), sponsor of the bipartisan Mental Health and Safe Communities Act, noted, “All told, experts estimate that there are between 300,000 and 500,000 mentally ill individuals locked up in prisons and jails across the country.”
Cornyn emphasized, “Our criminal justice system isn’t adequately equipped to treat individuals with mental illness. In fact, it is one of the worst places for individuals with mental illness.”
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota), sponsor of another bipartisan proposal, the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act, lamented the fact that “we are using the criminal justice system as a substitute for a fully functioning mental health system.”
Rich Larsen, public information officer at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Carlisle, Indiana, and an interviewee in “Through the Door,” EthicsDaily.com’s documentary on faith and prisons, said, “Prisons make up the biggest mental health facilities in the country.”
William Gupton, another interviewee who was assistant commissioner of rehabilitative services for the Tennessee Department of Correction during filming and is now the Shelby County corrections director, explained one reason behind this troubling reality.
“In 1985, the sad truth to this system is that there were 850,000 mental health inpatient beds around the country. To this day, we only have about 40,000 to 50,000 of those beds left,” he said. “These folks are going somewhere. And a lot of them are showing up at our county jails and definitely in our prison system.”
Cornyn, looking further back, noted a change in the mid-1960s. “Due to failures and inhumane conditions of mental health hospitals, we began releasing large numbers of mentally ill individuals back into the community” in hopes that they could recover and restore their lives.
“Instead of focusing on identifying and treating mental illness,” he continued, “we deinstitutionalized the mentally ill, forgot about treatment and hoped that the problem would solve itself. … The result has been a four-decade-long explosion in the growth of mentally ill individuals in our jails and prisons.”