Mental Health and the justice system

The criminal justice system faces significant challenges in addressing the mental health needs of the people it serves. As the stigma attached to mental health issues decreases, the criminal justice system is evolving in its approach to improving mental health treatment within the system.

The number of mental health courts around the country has grown in the past two decades and there are now almost 350 in the U.S. according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. After initially accepting only those charged with misdemeanor crimes such as vandalism or trespassing, many of the roughly 350 mental health courts nationwide now accept people charged with some felonies such as robbery, and even violent crimes in some cases.

The approaches vary widely, but judges often oversee a team of mental health experts and social services case managers who refer participants to services available in the community. Offenders generally return to the court regularly for the judge to review their progress and offer encouragement or, if necessary, sanctions.

Researchers from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C, led by Evan M. Lowder, Ph.D., sought to examine the effect of participation in mental health courts in criminal recidivism compared to traditional criminal processing. The team found the mental health court participation reduced the recidivism measures of charge and jail time but did not significantly affect arrest or conviction. 

Mental Health in prison  statistics show that 54 percent of inmates in state prisons report mental health concerns. Meanwhile, 64 percent of jail inmates and 45 percent of federal prisoners also say that they experience mental health issues.

Women and people of color are the most likely to previously report having a mental health condition and develop over time. Statistics reveal that 66 percent of women incarcerated in the US have pre-existing mental health problems. "While only around 13% of the population in the US is black, around 40% of people incarcerated are black. Demographics of United States prisons also show that Hispanic people are also overrepresented in prisons and jails, with 20 percent of the prison population made up of Hispanic people, compared to about 17 percent of the general population."


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