Reentry Essentials: Addressing Mental Health Needs among People in the Criminal Justice System

May 2, 2018

This is the third in a series of posts on aspects of successful reentry. Each post will include curated resources related to the featured reentry topic.

A disproportionate number of people in the nation’s criminal justice system face mental health issues: a Bureau of Justice Statistics report found, for example, that people in U.S. prisons and jails are three to five times more likely to experience serious psychological distress than the general adult population. While there is an overwhelming need to provide effective treatment, challenges exist in quantifying the extent of that need and taking a strategic approach across systems—from law enforcement to community-based reentry services.

Counties Are Stepping Up

At the policy level, state and local governments can work to address the prevalence of people in the criminal justice system who have mental illnesses by increasing cross-system collaboration among policymakers, government agencies, and communities and standardizing the definition of serious mental illness to improve information sharing and inform system developments. This month marks the three-year anniversary of Stepping Up, a national initiative to reduce the number of people in jails who have mental illnesses and provide counties with resources to create sustainable, data-driven plans to address this problem. Since its launch in 2015, more than 430 counties have passed a resolution or proclamation committing to act on this issue.

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Proven Practices Are Taking Root

At the practice level, criminal justice agencies and service providers can use validated screening and assessment tools to identify criminogenic risk and needs, which can then inform case plans. Tailoring supervision and providing evidence-based and innovative programming to target both criminogenic risk and behavioral health needs can lessen the likelihood of recidivism.

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Continuous Care Is a Priority

Increasing access to medical treatment and continuity of care from prison and jail to the community can ensure that people receive needed mental health care. This includes identifying eligibility for coverage and streamlining access to programs such as Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, Social Security Disability Insurance, and veterans’ benefits prior to a person’s release from incarceration.

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Innovative Alternatives to Incarceration Are Emerging

Diverting people from incarceration to community-based mental health care is another strategy that communities may consider to address recidivism. Partnerships among law enforcement, courts, mental health agencies, and service providers to prioritize treatment at the front end and avoid further involvement in the criminal justice system can improve both public safety and health outcomes.

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