A dearth of beds at state psychiatric hospitals and shortages of mental health resources mean that mentally ill people who commit minor crimes often end up languishing in jails, which are poorly equipped to handle them. It’s a difficult problem that can create a grim cyclical pattern: Untreated mentally ill people are carted off to jail, where their illnesses go unaddressed, which increases the odds that they will commit crimes after their release. Cities, counties and states are attempting to break that pattern, using law enforcement and criminal justice tools to direct the mentally ill to treatment that could help them control behaviors that got them into trouble, Stateline reports. There are now more than 300 mental health courts, which direct mentally ill defendants to treatment rather than incarceration. Some jurisdictions allow mental health competency exams to occur in community settings, so that defendants don’t have long waits for space at state hospitals, where the exams usually take place. Miami-Dade County, Fl., gives some mentally ill defendants suspected of misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies the option of treatment rather than jail or prison time.
More jurisdictions are turning to crisis intervention teams: police officers who are trained to de-escalate situations involving people who show signs of mental illness and take them directly to mental health treatment centers rather than jail. The results have been encouraging, with fewer arrests and fewer repeat offenders. The Miami-Dade County program cut nearly in half the chances that a mentally ill defendant would return to jail in the year after discharge compared to mentally ill defendants not in the program. Some experts worry that the programs involve law enforcement and the judiciary in health roles outside their expertise. Mental health advocacy groups, such as Mental Health America, caution that just because criminal justice agencies have these tools available, they shouldn’t have a license to sweep more people with mental illnesses into the criminal justice system to pressure them into treatment.