Mental illness and incarceration in California

In recent years, many highly publicized criminal cases have involved defendants suffering from mental illness. While mental illness and crime are not inextricably linked, the criminal justice system has had a difficult time dealing fairly with defendants suffering from mental illness or developmental disabilities.

Unlike the defendants who plead not guilty by reason of insanity, mentally ill or developmentally disabled defendants who are deemed incompetent cannot even stand trial. Laws dictate that they must receive treatment until they are deemed competent. Unfortunately, there is a severe shortage of treatment options for such inmates in California and other states.

According to the Los Angeles Times, there are only about six state hospitals equipped to treat and house defendants with mental illness, and only one equipped to handle defendants who are developmentally disabled. Because beds are often full at these hospitals, defendants may wait in jail for months before receiving treatment. In many cases, they spend much more time incarcerated before being tried than they would receive if convicted of their alleged offenses.

This backlog of cases is harmful to all involved. Mentally ill defendants are not receiving treatment they need, crime victims and defendants are not receiving justice and California taxpayers are footing the bill.

Many people do not realize it, but mental illness is public health issue that too often becomes a criminal justice issue. If mental health services were more abundant and readily available, we would likely see far fewer mentally ill individuals in a criminal justice system ill equipped to help them.

Source: The Los Angeles Times, "Defendants declared mentally incompetent face lengthy delays in jails," Abby Sewell, April 1, 2015

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