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Criminalization of the Mentally Ill

By jsm00th Sep 24, 2005 1319 Words
Criminalization of the Mentally Ill

Have you ever been dealt a dilemma were you knew that someone needed your help but you were also aware that you where not the individual with the capability of helping. This was the situation with my friend Dan; he and I went to high school together and were good friends. After graduation Dan went on to obtain a dual degree in mathematics and physics from Cal Berkeley, and was on the first U.S. table tennis team to go to china in the early 1970's. I remember being so proud of him, and knew without any doubt that he would live a very successful life. However Dan began to hear voices, gradually deteriorated, and ended up living in his parent's garage. Here are two people in their 80's trying to live a life that always included the uncertainty of not knowing if their son was going to burn down their house. He terrorized them, he terrorized the people of his neighborhood, and he scared the heck out of the cops, including myself, who responded to the one, two, three calls a month that came from Dan's house. Sometimes he had a gun; sometimes he had gasoline and road flares. Always he was irrational. In the beginning, he would recognize me and I could talk him out of whatever he was set on doing. In the end I was just another blue uniform. Often Dan didn't meet the criteria for a 72-hour hold for evaluation. There were often no options other than arrest and jail, which is where Dan stayed until he calmed down and could be released to his parents. Tragically Dan died alone from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and no one, certainly not me and certainty not the system, had adequate resources to help him.

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This is a true story from Bernard Melekain, Chief of Police for the city of Pasadena California. Stories like Dan's are not uncommon in the justice system, which has become by default the primary caregiver of the mentally ill. Primary care giver maybe; But lacking in sufficient resources to deal with individuals suffering from mental illness. The justice system is at a disadvantage when handling the mentally ill often times arresting and jailing them instead of using the proper mental health services. There is a greater possibility of the mentally ill being processed through the criminal justice system instead of through the mental health system. Why are the mentally ill more likely to end up in being rotated amongst the justice system? First the justice system is facing an increased number of mentally ill in the community. The justice system is also struggling due to the lack of proper training when dealing with the mentally ill. Also the justice system chooses to use incarceration as a deterrent but does not provide adequate treatment for those in the system.

First the Justice system is facing an increased number of mentally ill in the community. Deinstitutionalization was the downsizing of state mental hospitals during the 1970s and 80s. According to Dr. Terry Kupers "The deinstitutionalization process began in the 1960s; it was developed in response to a number of factors: legal advocacy on behalf of people "warehoused" in state mental hospitals, in some cases for a lifetime; the development of more effective psychotic medications promising better symptom control; and federal legislation establishing "Community Mental Health Centers" to help released patients establish new lives in caring communities. In response, state governments dramatically accelerated the release of patients from mental hospitals" Consequently this logic backfired. Dr Kupers goes to further explain that "Planning was flawed and implementation uneven. Local mental health systems struggled to provide an adequate array of services, but were generally unprepared to meet the basic needs of a population that had long been dependent on institutional care. Due in part to the community's lack of preparedness and resources, the needs of many of the deinstitutionalized has not been meet. Therefore many of the mentally ill have ended up exchanging hospitalization for institutionalization in prison or jail." This situation left many mentally ill on the streets with no one to look after them except the nation's police. Another reason for the increasing number of mentally ill individuals in the community is the expense of mental health services. Many individuals are unemployed and therefore without income. Many are not covered by health insurance and the individuals who do have insurance are often smothered under restrictions on coverage for mental illness. Others face time limits on in-patient treatment that will have rewarding effects. Others have difficulty accessing government-funded health coverage. Others depending upon their condition are not even aware that this program exits. Regardless of the reasoning police, as well as judge's and probation officers are on a daily basis faced with the increasing number of mentally ill individuals that are rotated amongst the system.

Secondly the justice system is also struggling due to the lack of proper training when dealing with the mentally ill. According to retired police Lt Michael Woody "7 to 15% of calls to which a police officer responds in the country involve someone with a mental illness." ( ) Many officers are not prepared when arriving on the scene of a disturbance to find that's it's an individual suffering from a mental disorder. Police officers never know what to expect with these individuals they can be outraged, unresponsive, delusional, and often times intoxicated. Police officers receive extensive training to become an officer; however they receive very little training on handling mental health issues. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. "People with mental illness are more likely to exhibit some behavior that will bring them into conflict with the criminal justice system, particularly under current "zero tolerance" and arrests for "quality of life" crimes." Therefore it is a true statement that police officers are not psychologist but some training and knowledge is needed when handling a growing issue that they face on almost a daily basis. Officers on many occasions arrest these individuals for resisting arrest, or for portraying signs of being a threat to them as an officer of the law. In some cases the need for arrest may be warranted but most times the individual is not even aware that they are a threat. Studies suggest that the top crimes committed by the mentally ill fall under the category of disorderly conduct, criminal trespass, disturbing the peace, and pubic intoxication. Being mentally ill should not be an excuse for crime or public misbehavior but incarceration is certainly not a cure for the bigger issue that caused the crime in the first place.

Lastly the criminal justice system at times chooses to use incarceration as a deterrent but fail to provide adequate treatment for those in the system. According to the national alliance for the mentally ill. "On any given day at 284,000 schizophrenic and manic depressive individuals are incarcerated, while only 187,000 seriously mentally ill individuals are in mental health facilities." ( ) If there are more mentally ill in the prison system than are in the mental health system there is defiantly a lacking bridge between the two systems. "Jail cells throughout the United States are crowded with a growing mentally ill population, which upon release wonder back onto the street without sufficient treatment." These people are prime candidates for repeat offenders, who become victim to the revolving door process. If the justice system chooses to incarcerate a mentally ill person they should at least provide the adequate services for the person while they are incarcerated. The proper treatment should be applied to their probation program upon release as well. Prison is a last resort when all other rehabilitative tools have failed, if you can not adapt to society's law's and ethics.

Coincidently using incarceration as a deterrent instead of the proper mental health services only results in the revolving door effect.

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