Mental Illness Cases Continue to Burden Criminal Justice System

In previous blogs, we've discussed the growing concerns surrounding mentally ill individuals who become lost in the American criminal justice system. These concerns are not new, but they have increased as more people have begun to realize that our criminal justice system – and prison system – is simply not equipped with the resources needed to address and help the mentally ill. A recent article from USA Today continues to explore this issue, revealing not only the numerous mentally ill individuals in our jails and prisons, but also the many people with mental health issues who rely on law enforcement authorities when they are in crisis.

The article begins with a troubling story of a 57-year-old Rhode Island woman who called police 61 times in a 17-month period. The woman continually calls authorities with reports of intruders, which are typically manifestations brought about by her mental illness. Her story is not unique, as the article reports that approximately 40% of calls to authorities in her Rhode Island town involve individuals with mental health or behavioral issues. When the woman calls police, they always arrive.

The woman's story illustrates a larger, more pressing issue – police, who are already overburdened, have become caretakers for the mentally ill. The problem is that authorities are both unequipped and not properly trained to fully address their needs. Still, these individuals often become part of the criminal justice system, as statistics from a 2006 Justice Department report show:

  • Roughly 1.2 million people in local, state, and federal custody reported some type of mental health issue.
  • Of the 1.2 million in custody, 64% in jails, 56% in state prisons, and 45% in federal prisons reported mental illness.
  • Cook County Jail, one of the largest local jails in America, reported that at least 30% of inmates suffer from mental health issues.

Law enforcement agencies have long reported the extensive resources they devote to mental health cases. As Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart stated, many of the mentally ill end up in the criminal justice system, simply because "we are the only system that can't say no." But without the expertise and proper training, authorities are being forced to make decisions that would be better handled by medical professionals.

At The Hammer Law Firm, LLC, we closely follow this issue because we have worked with many clients battling mental health issues and we've seen how the criminal justice system has slowly replaced mental health resources, despite being ill-equipped and ineffective. As we advocate for improved policies, we continue to fight on behalf of local residents struggling with mental illness who have been charged with crimes.

If you have questions about criminal charges and mental illness, our St. Louis criminal defense attorneys can help. Contact us today to discuss your case.

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