Far too many people with mental illnesses are in jails and prisons due to inadequate public mental health systems. Underfunded and resistant to new approaches, public mental health systems have failed to invest in effective strategies for preventing encounters with the criminal justice system. While assertive community treatment (ACT), intensive case management, crisis intervention teams (CIT), and supported housing all have proven successful in reducing arrests and incarceration, these services are in short supply in public mental health systems.

Everyone loses when we criminalize a person with a mental illness. People with mental illnesses experience trauma and mental health treatment is rarely adequate in jail or prison. In addition, they find it more difficult to get a job and find housing when they have a criminal record. Families suffer when their loved ones are imprisoned. Law enforcement resources are diverted on dealing with arrests of people with mental illnesses and tax dollars are misspent.

Many communities are beginning to address this problem through collaborations between the criminal justice system and the public mental health system. One approach is to promote jail diversion at all stages – pre-arrest, pre- and post-booking, pre-trial, and pre-sentencing. Another is ensuring that, when released from jail or prison, people have a supply of medication and immediate access to community mental health services. This strategy is greatly facilitated by ensuring that when inmates leave confinement, they are enrolled in federal income support programs like the Supplemental Security Income program (SSI) and health care programs like Medicaid.

The Bazelon Center is also at the forefront of efforts to prevent police contact in the first place. Our Performance Improvement Project (PIP) is mobilizing community mental health leaders to analyze police encounters with people with serious mental illnesses as preventable failures of public service systems. Local leaders are making changes, including to public policies that restrict access to services, to ensure that police interventions with people with serious mental illnesses are no longer routine.

The Bazelon Center is working to end incarceration of individuals with mental illness by diverting them away from jails and into community-based programs.