Decriminalizing Mental Illness:
Making the Case for Justice Reinvestment during Difficult Economic Times
Is your state experiencing a budget crisis? Unless you are very lucky, your state government is looking for ways to cut, and mental health services are probably at the top of the list. At the same time, most states are grappling with the ballooning costs of jails and prisons. During the criminal justice symposium, “Making the Case for Justice Reinvestment during Difficult Economic Times,” two national experts grappled with how to advocate for mental health services—especially for individuals at greatest risk of involvement with the criminal justice system—when state budgets are strained to the limit.
Pete Earley, longtime NAMI member and author of Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, discussed the story of his son’s mental illness and involvement with the criminal justice system. Mr. Earley’s story reinforces what NAMI members know best: telling your family’s story is the most convincing way to humanize the tragedy of criminalization. At the same time, he discussed his investigation of the Miami-Dade County jail, where there are so many detainees living with mental illness that they have their own floor of the jail.
Earley’s investigation revealed that detainees living with mental illness were packed several to a cell, often stripped bare of any clothes and left to sleep on the floor or a metal bunk without sheets. Most of the men he interviewed were experiencing psychosis and clearly getting no treatment. Many languished for months before facing trial.
This human tragedy is also a financial disaster for most states. People living with serious mental illness crowd jails and prisons where they stay longer than others who are being held on similar charges and require costly care and additional staff, which correctional facilities cannot afford. Worse, once released, people living with mental illness are unlikely to get the treatment and
States pay for a cycle of incarceration that ultimately benefits no one: the person living with mental illness does not get the help he needs, public safety does not improve and law enforcement and correctional officers find themselves frustrated because they don’t have the capacity to provide the care that people need.
Dr. Fred Osher addressed how states can break this cycle, save money and provide treatment for people at the greatest risk of involvement with the criminal justice system. Dr. Osher is a longtime NAMI member, and works as the director of the health components of the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center’s initiatives. He and the
The justice reinvestment process involves careful evaluation of existing corrections spending to find places where funds are being used inefficiently. The funds identified are then used to intervene earlier in the criminal justice system. In
This example is just one of several justice reinvestment projects being spearheaded by the
NAMI advocates can learn more about Justice Reinvestment on the Council of State Governments’ website. Advocates will also want to check out NAMI’s fact sheet The High Cost of Cutting Mental Health: Criminal Justice or view Dr. Osher’s presentation from the symposium. To learn more about Pete Earley and his work, go to www.peteearley.com.