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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Hard Time or Hospital Treatment? Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System

Christine Montross
N Engl J Med 2016; 375:1407-1409
October 13, 2016

Here is an excerpt:

When law enforcement is involved, the trajectory of my patients’ lives veers sharply. The consequences are unpredictable and range from stability and safety to unmitigated disaster. When patients are ill or afraid enough to be potentially assaultive, the earliest decision as to whether they belong in jail or in the hospital may shape the course of the next many years of their lives.

It’s now well understood that the closing of state hospitals in the 1970s and 1980s led to the containment of mentally ill people in correctional facilities. Today our jails and state prisons contain an estimated 356,000 inmates with serious mental illness, while only about 35,000 people with serious mental illness are being treated in state hospitals — stark evidence of the decimation of the public mental health system.

When a mentally ill person comes into contact with the criminal justice system, the decision about whether that person belongs in jail or in the hospital is rarely a clinical one. Instead, it’s made by the gatekeepers of the legal system: police officers, prosecutors, and judges. The poor, members of minority groups, and people with a history of law-enforcement involvement are shuttled into the correctional system in disproportionate numbers; they are more likely to be arrested and less likely than their more privileged counterparts to be adequately treated for their psychiatric illnesses.

The article is here.