Should the Mentally Ill in Prison Get Special Treatment?

March 10th, 2011 by LindseyO

The Cold Indifference of the Criminal Justice System

Sometimes it can be difficult to differentiate true criminal behavior from mental illness. Sadly, it often goes without attempt, and the mentally ill are treated as any other common criminal. This is immoral, unethical and extremely expensive.

Mental illness puts people at an increased risk of homelessness, drug abuse and, surprisingly enough, incarceration. This is largely due to both their mental instability and unpredictable behavior, which is often seen as a nuisance and results in arrest. It is estimated that 7% of people with mental illnesses are put in jail or prison each year.

For a person with mental disease or defect, a petty crime can often result in long periods of incarceration due to the person’s inability to adhere to their release conditions. Additionally, they are far more apt to cause problems in the restrictive environment of jail or prison, thereby breaking the rules and receiving further punishment.

To add insult to injury, it seems the criminal justice system’s only interest concerning mentally ill offenders is to restore their competency in order to put them on trial. Mentally ill people make up but 5% of the United States’ population, but make up 14% of incarcerated individuals. Due to the sporadic nature of people suffering from mental disease, a small offense often turns into an even larger one.

The Miami-Dade County Jail in Florida is a good example of this regressive regime. Although not a treatment facility, this jail houses five times as many mentally ill persons than any psychiatric hospital in the state. On top of that, the conditions these people are forced to live in are absolutely deplorable. As many as four inmates might occupy a cell designed to hold but only one. Some of these inmates must actually stand and wait for their turn to sleep on the cold concrete floor.

This mistreatment of the mentally ill will surely have to be endured by 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, the young man whom stands accused of murder and attempted assassination after he opened fire outside a Tucson supermarket. During Loughner’s attack, nineteen people were shot, six of whom were killed. Amongst the dead were both a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl. Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords, believed to be the young man’s primary target, was shot through the head and remains in critical condition.

It’s difficult to believe that Loughner was not suffering from some type of mental illness. Along with just about everyone the young man knew, his classmates in particular, several law enforcement agencies had previously questioned his mental health. He’s described as a loner, shut off from the world by his headphones and hooded sweatshirts and who ranted and raved online about far-right politics. Loughner was undoubtedly one of two things, a brazen right-wing radical or a very sick man; most people suspect the latter.

Aside from being disgustingly cruel, turning a blind eye to people with mental illness is a great expense to society. A study conducted in Summit County, Ohio, estimated that only twenty people over, the course of one year, cost the State nearly 1 million dollars. This astronomical cost was due to repetitive arrests, 72-hour hospital stays and induction into detoxification facilities. The results of a similar study in Pennsylvania showed that mentally ill persons cost the state twice as much as regular offenders.

A survey conducted by the Western Mental Health Research Center in Portland, Oregon, involved speaking with 260 people that had mentally ill relatives whom had had contact with the criminal justice system. The majority of these family members had been arrested, but very few were taken to a hospital at the time of their arrests. Most of the family members stated that the arrests were merely the result of a psychiatric crisis.

The facts do not lie. This display of blatant indifference is causing harm to both society and the mentally ill persons themselves. Although drastic change is obviously required, little action is actually being taken.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and the author alone, and do not reflect in any way the opinion of the web site or any of its affiliations or partnerships.  Lindsey is a contributor for in the Legal Entertainment category.

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