Monday, June 6, 2011

Prison Overcrowding and Mental Illness

The prison overcrowding problem has generated a lot of attention. The U.S. Supreme Court has recently ordered California to reduced its prison population by 33,000 inmates. The reduction would still leave California at 137 percent of capacity.

As the economy slowly recovers, many states strapped for cash have looked at their enormous corrections budgets as a place to save money. Suddenly, holding parole violators accountable, or imprisoning "low risk" drug offenders no longer seems to be a priority in fighting crime.

Often over looked in the the prison glut is the failure, and underfunding, of community mental health services. Prisons have become de facto psychiatric hospitals.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 24 percent of inmates in the United States have serious mental illness. Seventy percent of youth in the juvenile justice system are experiencing some mental health disorder. Fifty percent of previously incarcerated offenders with serve mental illness are returned to prison, often for violations that can be related to conduct brought on by their illness.

While funding for community mental health services has been cut over the last 20 years, corrections' budgets have increased by 350 percent from $10 billion to $45 billion. Funding mental health services and reducing the number of people in prison with severe mental illness will not end the prison crowding problem, but it will have a significant impact and is the humane thing to do.

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