NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Mentally Ill Increasingly Going to Jail

January 21, 2004

When many of the country's mental-health hospitals were shut down in the 1960s, the idea was that patients would be looked after by local health systems. Instead, the mentally ill often have little access to treatment, and many have ended up on the streets or in jail, says the Economist.

  • The number of mentally ill in Santa Clara County's jails jumped by 300 percent in the four years after a nearby California state hospital closed.
  • Another study showed that the arrest rate of mentally ill people rose five-fold in the first eight years after the rules tightened about whom was allowed into mental hospitals.
  • The American Psychiatric Association estimates that as many as one in five of those behind bars has a serious mental illness.

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) argued that the penal system is "not only serving as a warehouse for the mentally ill but is also acting as an incubator for worse illness and psychiatric breakdowns."

There is a perverse economic logic in the mentally ill ending up in prison, rather than hospitals. American prisons, after all, have been far more successful than mental-health systems at protecting their budgets from cost-cutting politicians. It is also cheaper to house the mentally ill behind bars than in a state hospital. On the other hand, the prisons are not designed to treat the mentally ill. They are bad at rehabilitating "normal" prisoners, and they usually make mentally ill people iller still, says the Economist.

Source: "Locked up -- The American penal system and the mentally ill," Economist, November 15, 2003.


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