Mental health professionals have acknowledged that the current numbers of mentally ill persons incarcerated in American prisons is “an urgent problem. ” (Lamb and Weinberger, 483) As a result of clinical studies, it is estimated that between 6 and 15 percent of persons detained in both county and city jails and between 10 and 15 percent of persons held in state prisons suffer some form of “severe mental illness. ” (Lamb and Weinberger, 483) These prisoners typically have “acute and chronic mental illness and poor functioning.
” (Lamb and Weinberger, 483) Moreover, a large number of these mentally ill detainees are homeless. (Lamb and Weinberger, 483) Complicating matters, mentally ill persons are arrested at a greater rate than members of the “general population. ” (Lamb and Weinberger, 483) Based on these findings it is obvious that diverting mentally ill persons from the court and into treatment would have a positive impact on prison overcrowding. It is therefore important to identify the factors that contribute to the imprisonment of mentally ill offenders and eradicating or minimizing those factors.
The main factors contributing to mentally ill persons being placed in detention are “deinstitutionalization,” strict requirements for “civil commitment”, poor “community support” systems, difficulties for mentally ill offenders obtaining “access to community treatment” and poor responses by both police officials and members of the community. (Lamb and Weinberger, 483) It therefore follows that an appropriate response to eradicating and/or minimizing these contributing factors will include police education and training.
Put another way, police should receive “formal training” and “mental health consultation” so that they may be in a better position to recognize and respond to mentally ill offenders in an appropriate manner. (Lamb and Weinberger, 483) This will only work however, if police are permitted to enforce civil commitment. In this regard, civil commitment procedures should be relaxed to permit police to submit mentally ill offenders who have committed minor offences for mental treatment.
A second approach to mentally ill offenders should be the implementation of a more rigorous method of screening for mental health problems and prompt diversion of these prisoners who have committed minor offences to a mental health facility. (Lamb and Weinberger, 483) The implementation of “social control interventions” and “assertive case management” should also be considered, preferably in the form of “outpatient commitment, court-ordered treatment, psychiatric conservatorship and 24-hour structured care. ” (Lamb and Weinberger, 483)