Justice, Supreme Court of Ohio; Chair, Supreme Court of Ohio Advisory Committee on Mentally Ill in the Courts. Editing and research assistance by Kristina Hawk, Staff Attorney to Justice Lundberg Stratton, Supreme Court of Ohio.
Finding effective strategies for working with mentally ill persons in the criminal justice system is important to me, both personally and professionally.
As a family member of a person who once suffered from depression, I am aware of the stigma of mental illness. It is not a popular subject, but it is one that I am passionate about. As a former trial judge, I saw first hand the effects of mental illness on the legal system. I am extremely concerned about keeping people with mental illness out of jail and diverting them into appropriate mental health treatment.
The numbers say it all.
? In 1955, there were 558,239 severely mentally ill patients in our nation's public psychiatric hospitals. In 1994, there were 71,619. Based on population growth, at the same per capita utilization as in 1955, estimates are that there would have been 885,010 patients in state hospitals in 1994.1
? Where have these severely mentally ill patients gone? Our jail population of people with mental illness has swelled to 285,000. According to a U.S. Department of Justice July 1999 Report, sixteen percent of state prison inmates and sixteen percent of those in local jails reported either a mental condition or an overnight stay in a mental hospital.2
? According to that same study, half of mentally ill inmates reported three or more prior sentences.3 Among the mentally ill, fifty-two percent of state prisoners, and fifty-four percent of jail inmates Page 902 reported three or more prior sentences to probation or incarceration.4
? In fact, according to March 2000 statistics from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, there were 6,393 mentally ill inmates, 3,051 of whom were classified as severely mentally disabled.
? The National Institute of Corrections estimates the number of people booked into America's jails at 10 million per year.5 Utilizing the aforementioned sixteen percent statistic from the U.S. Department of Justice, we can estimate that nearly 1.6 million people per year with a mental condition or mental illness will pass through America's jails.
? Jail inmates with mental illness stay in jail an average of three to four times longer than other inmates.6 Thus, the 1.6 million inmates could equate to more than 4.8 million in regards to bed space in our jails.
? Many of the severely mentally ill who have been released into the community through deinstitutionalization are now part of the 600,000 people in America who are homeless. Of these, it is believed that at least a third are mentally ill.7
A revolving door problem has developed in this country. Jails and prisons have become the de facto mental health system of our day. We must reverse this trend. Over the past few years, innovative diversion programs and other pioneering efforts across the nation have been successful in attacking this crisis. We must persevere to be able to provide community treatment for this population that was previously "warehoused," but that is now slipping through the cracks of our safety nets.
If not for altruistic reasons, this change is crucial in terms of the cost savings to the taxpayer. Mentally ill inmates require far more jail and prison resources because of treatment and crisis intervention. But this revolving door has other costs, too. Taxpayer dollars are paying for police Page 903 officers to repeatedly arrest, transport, and process mentally ill defendants, as well as for jail costs associated with treatment and crisis intervention, salaries of judges and court staff, prosecutors and defense attorneys, and many more hidden costs. The question becomes, would we rather spend these dollars to keep mentally ill citizens homeless, revolving in and...