Small changes in common practices could dramatically reduce the mass incarceration of people with serious mental illness and its human and economic toll, says the Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center. Emptying the ‘New Asylums’: A Beds Capacity Model to Reduce Mental Illness Behind Bars uses a mathematical model to project the impact of changing any of three factors on the logjam of jailed mentally ill defendants who cannot be tried because they are too ill, but who remain incarcerated because psychiatric beds that are needed to restore them to competency are unavailable.
An estimated 90,000 defendants require such services annually. Because of psychiatric bed shortages, most states maintain waiting lists of such inmates, and some lists take months to complete. More than a dozen states are being sued or threatened with legal action over the constitutionality of the widespread practice. The model seeks to reduce the number of people with serious mental illness who are arrested, eliminate administrative and other non-clinical factors that lengthen state hospital stays, and increase the number of beds. Treatment Advocacy Center Director John Snook called the findings “game-changing.” For example, in Florida, diverting two mentally ill offenders per month would reduce the average forensic bed wait in the state by 75 percent, from an average of 12 days to three days. In Texas, reducing the average hospital stay from 189 days to 186 days would reduce forensic bed waits from an average of two months to three days. In Wisconsin, increasing the number of forensic beds from 70 to 78 beds would reduce waits for competency services from nearly two months to two weeks.