Mental Illness and Incarceration: Disrupting the Link

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Early intervention programs may be the key to preventing people with serious mental illness from ending up in prison, according to a report released this week by the VERA Institute of Justice. Currently, more than half a million people who are mentally ill are incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails on any given day, the report states, noting that it is equivalent to the number of people held in “deplorable” conditions in psychiatric institutions during the 1950s.

“The driving idea is a simple one: To invest in people early on to avert or halt a trajectory of interaction with the criminal justice system,” write authors Leah G. Pope, Kim Hopper, Chelsea Davis and David Cloud in the report, entitled “First-Episode Incarceration: Creating a Recovery-Informed Framework for Integrated Mental Health and Criminal Justice Responses.” The authors add: “At a basic level, prevention and early intervention may be less about designing totally new programs than about integrating existing elements of effective practice into a comprehensive program.”

Examples provided by the study included designing programs that help homeless clients find housing, and offer enough flexibility to allow them to enroll in school or vocational training and foster a sense of empowerment. The recommendations were developed based on feedback from 11 practitioners nationwide—including policymakers, academics and other professionals—who work at the intersection of mental health and criminal justice.

Read the report HERE.

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