Recent reports from the Center for American Progress and the Public Citizen and the Treatment Advocacy Center confirm what many already understood: The U.S. relies too heavily on our criminal justice system to deal with the public health problem of mental illness, and our criminal justice system isn’t adequately prepared for this responsibility.
Dallas is no exception. Just days after the Dallas police ambush last month, Police Chief David Brown made national headlines in his news conference on how “we’re asking cops to do too much in this country.” His first example? Mental health issues. In June, The Dallas Morning News’ Naomi Martinreported that Dallas police received 12,141 911 calls related to a mental patient in 2015, an 18 percent increase since 2012.
These two national studies provide more details to underpin local concerns.The Public Citizen report found that county jails are dealing with an increasing number of seriously mentally ill individuals, largely due to downsizing and closing state psychiatric hospitals without providing necessary alternatives. According to the Center for American Progress’ report, federal and state jails and prisons hold three times as many people with mental health conditions as state mental hospitals. And one in five prison inmates has a serious mental illness.
It’s a serious problem — one our jails and their staffs weren’t designed to handle. They often lack the proper training or resources to adequately treat mental illness, Public Citizen noted: “Almost half of the jails reported that only 2 percent or less of the initial training they provide to their staff and sheriff’s deputies was allotted to issues specifically dealing with seriously mentally ill inmates.” For annual training on such issues, more than 60 percent of jails said they spend two hours or less.
It’s unfair to law enforcement and the public to primarily rely on the criminal justice system to handle mental illness. It’s also unnecessarily expensive.
Jailing a person with serious mental illness costs nearly $50,000 per year on average, the Center for American Progress report noted. The price tag on even the most expensive and intensive community-based interventions, however, is significantly less. For example, providing Assertive Community Treatment — a team-based treatment model that provides round-the-clock support — and supportive housing, according to the report, costs around $20,500 annually.
This newspaper has consistently supported efforts to “erase the stigma” around mental illness, since stigmatization only exacerbates the problems and pain. But that’s only one part of the equation. We also need to better fund and improve mental health care. These new reports should strengthen our resolve to invest in mental health care services, so we can empower, not imprison, those who are struggling.