High Proportion of Individuals with Behavioral Health Needs

One factor that is often cited as a reason for the overrepresentation of individuals with behavioral health needs in the justice system is the public policy decision to move from a strategy of institutionalizing those with mental illness—predominant in the 1960's and 70's—to one of providing mental health services in community mental health centers nationwide. This policy decision was not followed with a commensurate growth in the availability of community-based services, resulting in limited access to treatment and support services. There is some dispute about how directly this has impacted the growth of those with behavioral health needs in the criminal justice system, but for some of the more disabled individuals, hospital care remains essential. Other contributing factors may include the overall increase in incarceration rates, and the heavy focus on crimes involving possession, use, and distribution of drugs. Persons with mental illnesses are three times more likely to have co-occurring substance use disorders than the general population and are frequently arrested for drug related crimes. Still others have noted that individuals with mental illnesses have high rates of homelessness that bring them into contact with police, and thus are more likely to be brought into the criminal justice system—even though mental illness does not, itself, translate into a higher risk of crime. However, as more research is conducted, our understanding of these relationships is becoming more insightful.

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