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American Police and Prisons Are Failing the Mentally Ill

Those with severe mental conditions are more likely to be incarcerated, and less likely to be granted opportunities such as parole.

Earlier this month, police received a frantic phone call from the parents of Melissa Boarts. Their daughter had just threatened to slit her wrists, they explained to the police, and had then promptly driven off. Police allege that, when they caught up with Boarts, who was diagnosed with bipolar manic depression, she got out of her car, “armed with a weapon and charged the officers.” Officers shot and killed her. In the wake of their daughter’s death, Boarts’ parents have been adamant about one thing, the Montgomery Advertiser reports: “They didn’t have to shoot her.”

Boarts’case is one of hundreds that demonstrates the injustice plaguing those with mental disorders, including those with drug and alcohol problems, at every point in the American criminal justice system. Often, these are individuals who should have been receiving therapy for their ailments. Instead, because mental-health programs are underfunded, they end up in jail or prison for crimes—such as disorderly conduct or threatening behavior—that can be traced to their untreated illness, expertsargue. Once incarcerated, individuals must then deal with staffers who haven’t received proper training and thus often use unnecessary force with mentally ill inmates who don’t adhere to the rules.

In a report published this week, the National Academies of Sciences gathered the research about mentally ill Americans’ experiences in the justice system. We’ve got highlights below, from both the National Academies and other sources:

  • The dangers for those with mental disorders begin with their interactions with police in public. About one-fourth of the civilians police shot and killed in the first half of 2015 were “in the throes of mental or emotional crisis,” according to a Washington Postinvestigation.
  • Those with mental illnesses are also more likely to be incarcerated. Estimates of how many incarcerated Americans have mental-health problems vary, but most agree it’s a good proportion. One 2005 survey estimated 45 percent of people in federal prison, 56 percent of people in state prison, and 64 percent of people in jail recently had symptoms of, or were diagnosed with, a mental-health disorder.
  • Once they’re imprisoned, folks with mental illnesses tend to navigate the system poorly. They’re more likely to be put in solitary confinement (sometimes for their own protection, as they’re more likely to be targeted by other prisoners). They’re less likely to be granted parole, receive opportunities to reduce their sentences, and get placed in less restrictive facilities. Mentally ill inmates don’t necessarily deserve these opportunities any less — it’s unclear whether those with severe mental illnesses are more likely to re-offend than mentally typical folks.
  • Recent reports from Human Rights Watch and The New Yorker have documented egregious abuse of the mentally ill in prisons. Often the abuse is in response to “misbehavior” that’s actually symptomatic of mental conditions, such as not following orders, or self-harm.
  • Only one-third of people in prison and one-fifth of people in jail who have mental illnesses get the health care they need, according to the National Academies.

Officials and researchers have proposed and tried a number of solutions, including developing police-officer training programs, mental-health courts, and mental health-care programs for prisons. Emerging evidence shows these fixes can work, but they’ll need to be expanded to cover the millions of Americans who need them.