Decriminalization of Mental Illness

In a state ranked 49th for mental health funding, with one of the largest uninsured populations, and an ever increasing number of incarcerated people, Florida is in desperate need of mental health care reform. Today, the three facilities that hold the highest number of individuals with mental illnesses are not psychiatric hospitals, but jails. The criminal justice system has become the “de facto” mental health care system, simply because there are so many persons with psychiatric disabilities who are not receiving treatment. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 40% of adults with serious mental illnesses are arrested at some point (usually for petty crimes like loitering or disturbing the peace). A 2006 survey revealed that 56% of state prisoners, 45% of federal prisoners, and 64% of jail inmates had clinical symptoms of a mental health disorder (James and Glaze). In fact, Riker’s Island holds the highest number of individuals with mental illnesses. When an individual with a serious mental illness goes untreated and un-medicated, they often become symptomatic.   While these symptoms certainly vary in type and severity, they often lead to behaviors that can be interpreted as combative, threatening, and resistant from a law enforcement officer’s perspective. While Broward and Miami Dade counties have responded – and have done an excellent job in doing so – by implementing programs such as mental health court and crisis intervention training, the root of the problem remains.

We need effective, comprehensive, community-based mental health care. We already know that mass incarceration spends tax-payer dollars at an alarming rate; why not spend these dollars on mental health care before these individuals become part of the criminal justice system? An individual with mental illness could receive about one year of disability income, outpatient mental health services, and supplemental housing for roughly the same cost as a ninety day incarceration. The economic impact alone should be a sufficient impetus to overhaul Florida’s mental health care system. What about the other implications of incarcerating individuals with debilitating mental illnesses? Most individuals with psychiatric disabilities do not represent a threat to the public. Once in jail, they serve longer sentences with higher levels of corrective action and higher recidivism rates – all due to their mental illness. They are easily victimized by other inmates, and due to disruptive behavior caused by their illness, often serve longer sentences than prisoners without a mental illness, even though that person may have committed more serious crimes. When released, they face the same barriers (now compounded with a criminal record) as they did before their arrest. Mental illness is not a choice, not a defect of character, and certainly not a crime.

Most people, when asked, would say that non-violent offenders should not be imprisoned if there are better alternatives. Yet the problem continues to escalate. As they cycle between street corner, jail cell, and hospital bed, we are treating individuals with psychiatric disabilities in the most ineffective (financially, ethically, and clinically) way possible. Guardian Behavioral Health Foundation is determined to stop this cycle of ineffective spending, misallocated resources, and – most importantly – inappropriate and inhumane treatment of individuals with mental illnesses. The decriminalization of mental illness is about taking responsibility for our community. It is a civil rights issue.

The next time you see a man, unshaven, dirty, sunburnt, wearing clothes that are far too big for him, walking barefoot on the side of the road…consider that he may have lived the past ten years trying to negotiate through life with incessant voices in his head, intrusive thoughts, and delusional thinking. What we don’t know is who he really is. He is a person, and he has a story. Treatment has been proven to improve lives. And…at the risk of sounding cliché…he deserves a chance to do that.