Criminal Justice

States Look to Mental Health Reforms to Alleviate Stress on Justice System

All too often, individuals who suffer from mental health issues are cycled in and out of the justice system with little to no chance of attaining successful rehabilitation.

Mental health and behavioral disorders have emerged as one of the leading concerns in the world of criminal justice reform. Problems that had been rarely addressed have drawn high interest from researchers, corrections personnel, and lawmakers as it has become more apparent just how prevalent mental health issues are within our justice systems. Fortunately, several states are proactively addressing these issues in ways to enable effective rehabilitation for individuals in need, while simultaneously allowing the judiciary to administer justice more efficiently.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 56% of all incarcerated people in state prisons nationwide have indicated some form of a mental health problem. Yet only about one-fourth of the total population (26%) have received professional help for their mental health since entering prison. The prevalence of mental disorders within state prisons in the U.S. ranges from three to 12 times higher than that of the general public. Disorders represented include schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and impulse control disorders. Similar data is also reflected in the county jail systems as well. For example, a study of 132 suicide attempts in one Washington county jail found that 77% of those individuals had a “chronic psychiatric problem.” Fortunately, this information has not fallen on deaf ears.

Kentucky passed Senate Bill 90 in April of 2022, which provides alternatives to standard prosecution for individuals showing certain behavioral health disorders. The legislation established a pilot program allowing for qualifying, low-level offenders to be diverted from the justice system and into rehabilitative programs at the discretion of a judge. The restrictive eligibility requirements included in SB 90 ensure that only the most appropriate, low-risk candidates can be granted diversion into the rehabilitative programs.

Around the same time that bill passed, over 21,000 people were incarcerated in Kentucky county jails, surpassing their state  jail system capacity. This is in addition to the other 9,835 people incarcerated in Kentucky’s state prisons. Allowing alternative treatment systems for those in need provides states like Kentucky with better resources to avoid unnecessarily high incarceration levels and alleviate strain on their justice system. More importantly, providing these individuals with the appropriate treatment and services will ultimately keep people from needlessly cycling in and out of the justice system, reduce recidivism rates and have positive short and long-term impacts on crime rates.

Connecticut lawmakers also determined it was time to address how their justice system approaches mental health. Connecticut Senate Bill 448, which became law in 2022, now requires that every prison have a minimum of four mental health professionals and allows any inmate who asks to see a mental health professional, or is referred by a medical professional to see one. The treatment can include both therapy and medication based on a case-by-case evaluation. Providing this level of care allows the facility to run with less conflict and provides the inmates desperately needed care.

A number of states have decided to tackle the mental health issue with a variety of new bills that provide inmates with access to mental health care. New York and Michigan have adopted an assortment of bills  such as Senate Bills 2836, 637 and 638. SB 2836, or the ‘HALT’ Solitary Confinement Act, limits solitary confinement in New York to 15 days and creates residential rehabilitation units for those risk of suicidal ideation, self-harm, paranoia, depression and hallucination. As for Michigan Senate Bills 637 and 638, they created a jail diversion fund and community crisis response grant program allowing mental health professionals to accompany law enforcement on specific calls.

All too often, individuals who suffer from mental health issues are cycled in and out of the justice system with little to no chance of attaining successful rehabilitation or proper, success-bound reentry into society. ALEC’s Model Resolution on Mental Health and Criminal Justice, one of our Essential Policy Solutions for 2024, provides policymakers with a blueprint to a variety of treatment, rehabilitation, and reentry program starting points. It is one of the many ways policymakers can look to provide their states with options to minimize the strain on their justice system, more effectively prosecute violent crime, and provide rehabilitative support to individuals who need it most.

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