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NAMI Hand-Delivers Letter To Attorney General In Reaction To Department Of Justice Report On Criminalization

Chris Marshall
For Immediate Release
22 Jul 99

In response to last week's Department of Justice special report on criminalization, NAMI hand-delivered the letter below to Attorney General Janet Reno in conjunction with a major DOJ conference on Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System that is being held today and tomorrow. This letter will also be distributed on-site at the conference, which is being attended by several NAMI representatives.

Copies of the DOJ report can be obtained on-line at
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Click on: Mental Health and Treatment of Inmates and Probationers

July 20, 1999

The Honorable Janet Reno
Attorney General of the United States
U.S. Department of Justice
10th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W.
Room 5111
Washington, DC 20530

Dear Madam Attorney General:

As Executive Director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), I am writing to applaud the Department of Justice for its recent release of the report entitled "Mental Health and Treatment of Inmates and Probationers." The DOJ report describes a modern day tragedy that is all too well known to NAMI and its 210,000 members – jails and prisons in the United States have become the psychiatric treatment facilities of the 1990s.

In 1992, NAMI and Public Citizen’s Health Research Group published a report entitled "Criminalizing the Seriously Mentally Ill: The Abuse of Jails as Mental Hospitals," which revealed that the proportion of inmates with severe mental illnesses in American jails were four to five times as high as the representation of people with severe mental illnesses in the general population. Your report released last week sadly evidences that this disturbing trend has gotten worse as the decade has progressed.

The wholesale "criminalization" of people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and other severe mental illnesses can be directly attributed to the deplorable lack of treatment available for many individuals who suffer from these brain disorders. In the last decade, new medications have been approved and new service delivery models have been developed with proven success in treating people with severe mental illnesses. However, relatively few people with these disorders have access to state-of-the-art treatment. Last year, the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (AHCPR) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) released a report which revealed that fewer than 50% of all people with schizophrenia in the United States receive even minimally adequate treatment. With so many people "falling through the cracks," it is not surprising that the prevalence of severe mental illnesses among inmates in jails and prisons has grown so rapidly.

NAMI is gratified that the Department of Justice has acted assertively to facilitate increased awareness of the alarming increases in the numbers of people with severe mental illnesses in jails and prisons in this country. The "Mental Health and the Criminal Justice Forum" you are co-sponsoring this week with the Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS) provides a further opportunity to promote specific steps that can be taken to reduce the inappropriate criminalization of people with these brain disorders. For example:

  • Monies should be targeted from the Federal Drug Court Grant Program administered by the Department of Justice specifically for the establishment of "mental health courts" such as those already in existence in Fort Lauderdale, Seattle, and Anchorage.
  • Funds should be utilized from the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program to finance crisis intervention training and programs for law enforcement officers such as those already in existence in Memphis, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon.
  • Treatment guidelines developed by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the National Correctional Health Association should be cited in promoting appropriate and humane treatment for inmates with severe mental illnesses in jails and prisons in the U.S.
  • Funding should be increased under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) to aggressively enforce the civil rights of inmates with severe mental illnesses in jails and prisons, including their right to treatment.
  • Funding should be increased for the treatment of inmates with severe mental illnesses in federal prisons, including access to newer medications.

Madam Attorney General, I once again reiterate NAMI’s appreciation for the leadership you have exerted in focusing attention on this public health tragedy. We stand ready to work with you to promote constructive steps for reducing criminalization and increasing appropriate treatment for people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other severe mental illnesses.


Laurie M. Flynn
Executive Director