Where Mental Health and Criminal Justice Collide: Part Two

In part one of our series on mental health and criminal justice, we looked at violent altercations between police and the mentally ill. While these instances are dramatic, they do not tell the whole story about the treatment of those with mental health issues in the criminal justice system. In fact, a large portion of the prison population dealing with mental health issues in not comprised of violent offenders, but rather nonviolent drug offenders. The Sentencing Project reports that half of Oklahoma's prison inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent property crimes and drug crimes. The state's prison population has a higher proportion of inmates incarcerated for drug offenses than the national average, with 27 percent of the state's inmates behind bars for drug crimes. [caption id="attachment_4465" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Image Credit: Erin via https://www.flickr.com/photos/ephotography29/3175345489/ Image Credit: Erin via https://www.flickr.com/photos/ephotography29/3175345489/[/caption] What does that have to do with mental health? Let's look at some statistics related to mental health and substance abuse:

  • The National Bureau of Economic Research finds that those who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder at some point in their lives are responsible for 84 percent of cocaine use.
  • The United States Department of Health and Human Services reports that more than 1 in 4 adults with serious mental health issues also has substance abuse problems.
  • The Coalition Against Drug Abuse says that 8.9 million people in the United States have both a substance abuse problem and mental health disorder.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) says that, of these nearly 9 million people with both a mental health issue and a substance abuse problem (dual-disorder), 55.8 percent receive no treatment for either issue. Only 7.4 percent receive treatment for both conditions.
There are approximately 27,134 inmates in Oklahoma prisons. If 27 percent of those are in for drug crimes, that means more than 7,300 people are in prison for drug offenses. If more than 25 percent of those with mental health disorders have substance abuse problems, it could mean that nearly 2,000 people in Oklahoma prisons are behind bars because they could not get the mental health treatment they needed, and are instead "self-medicating" with illegal drugs or illegally obtained prescription drugs. There are no easy answers in balancing criminal justice and mental health care, but the statistics are startling. We like to think we are long past the "bedlam" days when our mentally ill were chained in asylums, but in fact, we are still punishing those with mental health disorders. In our next article, we will be looking at some more research regarding the mentally ill and their involvement in the criminal justice system.

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