Essay on Role of Mental Health in the Criminal Justice System

Published: 2021-08-18
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Wesleyan University
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Literature review
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Mentally ill people have a combination of unique situations and needs. One of the most challenging parts of the health policy and criminal justice system lies in the decision of how to best handle someone with a mental illness who has been found to have committed a crime. Often, the mentally ill patients pass the stages of the criminal justice system without a good care that can address their mental problems. It has been shown that people with mental illness are at risk of meeting police that getting medical assistance. Consequently, the majority of the inmates in the US prisons are people with mental illness. Available information shows that around 14% to 16%, translating to about 1 million, of the approximately 7.3 million inmates in the US, suffer from mental illness which takes various forms (Peterson et al., 2014). The inmates are suffering from various disorders which include major depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Officials, as well as other agencies in the criminal justice system, often face the challenge of handling people effectively with mental illness. One of the major problems faced by the criminal justice system is to distinguish between symptoms and traits. For example, anger is associated with symptoms of psychosis, posttraumatic stress disorder, mood disorders, and personality disorders.

A breakdown of the US state prisoners show that 56% of the prisoners within states, 45% of the prisoners at the federal level, and 64% of the inmates who have been jailed are affected by the mental problem (Kim, Becker-Cohen, and Serakos, 2015 0. The prisoners hardly receive health assistance, and 30% of the state prisoners have received mental health treatment after they were admitted. Offenders who have mental illness have been found to exert a lot of strain in the criminal justice system since housing them is costly. In addition to a high cost of health, people who are mentally ill have higher chances of recidivism and misconduct. The criminal justice system in the US appears to be harsh on people with mental illness. Instead of finding ways of providing medical assistance, it is punishing them. Since the criminal justice system is expected to be fair, it should also be fair to the offenders who have a mental illness. In this topic, the focus on how the criminal justice system deals with issues of mental health.

The large percentage of people with mental illness in the US prison may be associated with the definition of the condition. Taslitz (2007) pointed out that the breadth of the definition of the term mental health, and its controversy may be one of the reasons why there are many offenders with mental illness who end up in the US prisons. According to him, all people experience emotional pain which may go extended which may cause one to be forgetful or confused. However, even with the confusion or forgetfulness, they might still be healthy. Given that they are healthy, they understand their actions and consequently react with their emotions within ranges that can be described as normal. Taslitz (2007) further argued that rather than being opposites, mental illness and mental health are points on a spectrum. Consequently, there occur some fuzzy boundaries between the absence of health, and health since the term normalcy has more to do with social and moral judgments. He, therefore, argued the problem has been achieving a scientific or universal definition of mental health or mental illness.

High prevalence of people with mental illness in the US prisons has attracted the attention of the justice department. In response to a large number of prisoners with mental illness, the justice department has initiated some measures beginning with quantifying the number of prisoners with mental illness. Various agencies associated with the Department of Justice have carried out surveys, and they have found that 16.9% of the prisoners have a serious mental illness (Department of Justice, 2017). Their findings suggest that it is three times the rate founding the general population indicating that many of the offenders were committed offenses due to their mental status. In the surveys, it was found that men accounted 14% of serious mental illnesses, while women accounted for 31%. In a related study, Espinosa, Sorense, and Lopez (2013) also found that the distribution of crime rate is evident among the juvenile criminals. The researchers found that female juveniles accounted for the majority of the prisoners as compared with their male counterparts. One of the major problems in the criminal justice system is the health of prisoners with mental illness. While research suggests there is a high percentage of mentally ill people in incarceration, many of them do not receive treatment leading to the worsening of their conditions. Consequently, they not only become a threat to themselves upon leaving the prison but also a threat to others in the society. Failure to provide appropriate treatment to offenders is not just an act of disservice to the offenders but also to their families. Ultimately, the problem becomes a threat to public safety. Some of the initiatives by the Department of justice to address issues of mental illnesses the justice system include seeking more funding for training as well as technical support. Additionally, part of the funding has been allocated to the health treatment given to the mentally ill before being released to join the society.

While it has been established that there is an overrepresentation of people who are suffering from mental illness in prisons, there is still lack of clarity on certain aspects. There is lack of clarity on the relationship between mental illness and criminal behavior, which include violence, and how best offending in persons with mental illness and who have been brought to the justice system can be reduced. Despite the established linked between mental illness, and violence and recidivism, certain mental illnesses such as psychoses and schizophrenia are not reliable in predicting of criminal behavior. Rather, factors that have been used to predict criminal behavior include neuro-cognitive impairments in the brain, antisocial personality, and psychopathy. Criminality has been largely associated with factors such as substance abuse, personality disorders, neurocognitive impairments, and developmental disorders. The overrepresentation of people with a mental disorder in prisons is not restricted to the US. Studies in Canada also suggests that there is a higher percentage of people with mental disorders in the prisons than in the general population (MacPhail and Verdun-Jones, 2013).

While some studies have investigated mental illness to criminal behavior, other studies have focused on interventions that can be used to minimize overrepresentation of the mentally ill people in the prisons. There have been suggestions that the use of specialty probation, jail diversion, and integrated dual diagnosis treatment (MacPhail and Verdun-Jones, 2013). Instead of interventions that attempt to improve good health outcomes, experts have concluded that one of the most effective strategies are the use of interventions that are aimed at the behavior. Specifically, it has been concluded that some of the best methods are cognitive-behavioral interventions such as those targeting antisocial attitudes as well as behavior, and substance abuse. Female juvenile criminals may benefit from such interventions as Espinosa, Sorensen, and Lopez (2013) found that they engage in criminal activities due to their exposure to trauma. Beijersbergen (2014) also found that one of the interventions that can be used is the respectful treatment of the prisoners since it is one of the predictors of the prisons order as well as prisoners compliance. Despite these suggestions, a lot needs to be investigated to reduce the overrepresentation of the mentally ill persons.

There is a high percentage of people with mental illness in the US prison as compared with the general population. One of the major reasons that can be attributed to this unusually large percentage of people with mental illnesses prisons compared with the general population is the definition of mental illness. The broad nature of the definition of mental illness has An analysis of gender representations show the females in the prisons are more than males including even in the case of juvenile delinquents. While certain mental disorders such as antisocial behavior and personality disorders are predictors of criminal activities, other mental disorders such as psychosis and schizophrenia do not necessarily predict criminal activities. Several measures have been suggested to curb the incidences of overrepresentation of people with mental disorders in the prisons. Some of the suggested strategies include closer cooperation with the criminal justice system with the health care system. Effective interventions have been found to be those focused on targeting behavior. Despite these suggestions, the large percentage might not change unless the mental illness is redefined.



Beijersbergen, K. A., Dirkzwager, A. J., Eichelsheim, V. I., Laan, P. H., & Nieuwbeerta, P. (2014). Procedural justice and prisoners' mental health problems: a longitudinal study. Criminal behavior and mental health, 24(2), 100-112.

Department of Justice. (2017). Addressing Mental Illness in the Criminal Justice System. Retrieving

Kim, K. (2015). The processing and treatment of mentally ill persons in the criminal justice system. Retrieved from

MacPhail, A., & Verdun-Jones, S. (2013). Mental illness and the criminal justice system.

International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy. Retrieved from

Peterson, J. K., Skeem, J., Kennealy, P., Bray, B., & Zvonkovic, A. (2014). How often and how consistently do symptoms directly precede criminal behavior among offenders with mental illness? Law and Human Behavior, 38(5), 439.

Espinosa, E. M., Sorensen, J. R., & Lopez, M. A. (2013). Youth pathways to placement: The influence of gender, mental health need, and trauma on confinement in the juvenile justice system. Journal of youth and adolescence, 42(12), 1824-1836.

Taslitz, A. E. (2007). Mental Health and Criminal Justice-An Overview. Crim. Just., 22, 4.Retrieved from


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