Inmates in state and federal prisons are six times as likely to suffer from mental illness as the general population, according to a report by the Consensus Project.
The study, which looked at those with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and severe depression, found that 14.5% of men and 31% of women suffer from some type of severe mental illness. That amounts to 17% of the 13 millions adults who go through the criminal justice system each year.
One problem illustrated by the report, and that the authors hope to resolve, is the lack of a uniform mental illness screening process upon intake.
Dr. Fred Osher, co-author of the report, says one reason for the disparity is adults with mental illnesses, resulting from repeat drug possession or use, homelessness and a lack of health insurance or access to health care, are often incarcerated for repeated minor offenses, such as trespassing, petty theft or disorderly conduct.
While the report does not suggest that those with mental illnesses should not be punished for their crimes, it does suggest that prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys should work together to ensure that defendants receive proper assessment and alternative care so they may effectively rehabilitate.
The Consensus Project report also points out the irony that prisons over-crowding leads to budget deficits, and mental health facility are often the first on the chopping block.