Coalition Seeks To Reduce Inappropriate Incarceration
By Rebecca A. Clay
store manager calls the police to report a woman out front shouting
obscenities at shoppers. A police officer on patrol sees an unkempt
man urinating in public. A frightened family asks police to intervene
with a family member struggling with mental illness.
Scenarios such as these can sometimes end in violence, when the
police officer or the individual responds with force to a perceived
threat. But more often, such encounters lead to the needless incarceration
of a disproportionately large number of people with untreated mental
Recently, the Criminal
Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project published a report aimed
at improving the criminal justice system's response to people with
mental illness. The report was produced by a broad-based coalition
funded by SAMHSA within the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services, and the Office of Justice Programs within the U.S. Department
of Justice, together with private sector sources. The coalition
spent 2 years developing the recommendations, presented to a congressional
committee in June.
Led by the Council of State Governments, the Criminal Justice/Mental
Health Consensus Project includes the Association of State Correctional
Administrators; the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law; the Center
for Behavioral Health, Justice, & Public Policy; the National
Association of State Mental Health Program Directors; the Police
Executive Research Forum; and the Pretrial Services Resource Center.
These partners began by seeking information from a group of bipartisan
experts in criminal justice and mental health. More than 100 clinicians,
state mental health directors, mental health advocates, substance
abuse treatment experts, law enforcement officials, policymakers,
judges, corrections officials, victims' advocates, consumers
of mental health services, family members, and others shared their
ideas. Supplementing that input with surveys and literature reviews,
the partners then developed a consensus from these sometimes opposing
The result is a comprehensive plan that local, state, and Federal
policymakers, criminal justice and mental health professionals,
and advocates can use as a guideline to develop the supports that
keep people with mental illness out of the already overburdened
criminal justice system. The report features 46 policy statements
that address the entire criminal justice continuum—from the
time someone calls the police for help to an offender's release
from prison. Following each policy statement are specific recommendations
for putting the statement into practice, plus examples of programs
and policies that some jurisdictions are already using.
Back to Top
"The consensus report and recommendations are a testament
to a commitment to create a new future for people who find themselves
at the intersection of the mental health and criminal justice systems,"
said SAMHSA Administrator Charles G. Curie, M.A., A.C.S.W. "Consistent
with SAMHSA's own policy directions, the report supports a
community-based treatment philosophy for people with mental illness."
The first half of the report focuses on opportunities for identifying
people with mental illness and reacting in ways that recognize their
needs and civil liberties while simultaneously protecting the public.
For example, when a person in need of mental health services comes
into contact with the criminal justice system, there are a variety
of options available. The report recommends training police dispatchers
and officers to determine whether mental illness may be a factor
in an incident, establishing protocols to help officers respond
appropriately, promoting accountability by documenting interactions
between officers and people with mental illness, and collaborating
with mental health professionals to reduce the need for subsequent
The second half of the report discusses the broad, systemic changes
necessary for achieving the coalition's specific recommendations.
These changes include:
- Promoting extensive collaboration. Neither
the criminal justice system nor the mental health system can bring
about change by taking action alone, the report emphasizes.
- Educating all involved. Training can help law
enforcement personnel, court officials, corrections staff, and
mental health professionals respond appropriately. Community education
can raise the public's awareness.
- Developing an effective, accessible mental health system.
The report calls for mental health services that are accessible,
user-friendly, evidence-based, culturally competent, and integrated
with other service systems.
- Measuring and evaluating outcomes. Evaluation
can determine whether programs and policies are successful and
help build continued support for changes.
For more information about the project, go to www.consensusproject.org.
Back to Top