By Linda Rosenberg
I wish I had a penny for every time I’ve said, “We know what to do; now we just have to do it.” Nowhere is this truer than in the treatment of people with mental illnesses and substance use disorders in the criminal justice system.
“We have good science,” Fred Osher, M.D., told us. “We have policies that are associated with a reduction of people with mental illnesses in the justice system. But we haven’t put it together and sustained it over time.” Fred, a psychiatrist at the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center in Charleston, South Carolina, is the retired health systems and services policy director for the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center.
We recently spoke to Fred and to Chan Noether, director of the GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation. We wanted to know why people with mental and substance use disorders are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, what we’re doing right, and what we need to be doing better. First, some key facts:
- Nearly 2 million people with serious mental illnesses are arrested each year.
- In 2012, jails and prisons housed 10 times as many people with serious mental illnesses as state hospitals.
- Forty-five percent of jail inmates and 53 percent of prisoners have a substance use disorder.