Investing in Criminal Justice and Mental Health Solutions

Don’t tell me the resources aren’t there and that we don’t have solutions. Our country is spending $15 billion every year on the incarceration of individuals with serious mental illness and substance use disorders. Meanwhile we have effective, evidence-based interventions that increase access to care, reduce incarceration, and save money just sitting on the shelf.

It is past time that we end the cycle of incarceration of Americans with mental illness and prime time for us to start investing in solutions that increase access to treatment and improve public safety. 64 percent of all jail inmates have a mental health condition. Countless studies have shown that individuals with mental illness cost more to incarcerate, stay longer, and return more often.

Across our country, states and local communities have developed and implemented effective programs that integrate our mental health and criminal justice systems to help get individuals the care they need.

  • 11th Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project (CMHP): Florida’s 11th Circuit Court in Miami-Dade County established CMHP in 2000 to help divert individuals with serious mental illnesses and substance use disorders who pose no threat to public safety, from the county jail and into community-based care. The program uses a combination of Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training to specially train local law enforcement in identifying and responding to people with mental illnesses and post-booking diversion to connect individuals with treatment and services. As a result of the program, the county has been able to close an entire jail, saving taxpayers $12 million a year and decreased recidivism from 75 to 20 percent.

  • The Mentally Ill Offender Community Transition Program (MIOCTP): Washington State implemented the MIOTCP in 1998 as a collaboration between the Department of Corrections and the Department of Mental Health to improve care for individuals with mental illness. By asking corrections and mental health staff to work together, the program provides coordinated services including risk assessment and treatment planning. MIOTCP has reduced recidivism among participants to 19 percent, compared to 42 percent.

  • The Connections Program: The Connections program in San Diego targets individuals released on probation with intensive case management with a multi-disciplinary team with 24-hour availability. The program has shown high rates of participants seeking treatment and lower recidivism.

These are just a few of the criminal justice and mental health programs that have been implemented on the state and local level with delivered results. Additionally, over 200 Mental Health Courts have been established nationally to combine court supervision of arrested individuals with mental illness with community-based treatment and services.

This year NACo, the American Psychiatric Foundation, and the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center announced “Stepping Up,” a nation-wide initiative to harness the promise of these existing programs and reduce the number of individuals with mental illness and substance use disorders in our jails. Their call to action will challenge counties across the country to adopt meaningful reforms that increase access to mental health services and improve collaboration between mental health agencies and the criminal justice system. I challenge all of our counties to step up.

We need leadership at all levels of government. While national momentum is building and criminal justice and mental health programs continue to demonstrate effective results and significant cost savings, federal funding has remained stagnant. The Department of Justice’s Justice and Mental Health Collaboration program that is funded at a just $8.5 million has failed to keep up with the demand for these programs.

We need more federal, state and local funding for criminal justice and mental health. But ultimately, this cannot be a patch-work effort, one lucky grant recipient at a time. We need system-wide change. We need to invest in the wide-scale development and implementation of cost-effective, evidence-based programs that integrate our mental health and justice systems.

It is time to take these solutions off of the shelf and end this crisis.

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“We stand on the doorstep to make momentous progress in advancing the cause of this new civil rights struggle started by the work of President Kennedy over 50 years ago.”
— Patrick J. Kennedy