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Is mental health care lacking in jails and prisons?

Mental illness can cause some people to do things they wouldn't ordinarily do, which includes breaking the law. According to one source, up to 500,000 people with various serious mental illnesses spend their days in jails and prisons. This number does not include those with passing encounters with the criminal justice system.

If your loved one is part of the number of mentally ill and incarcerated individuals, you may wonder whether he or she receives much-needed care. The sad fact is that many don't receive the treatment they need.

The First Step Act

Congress recently enacted the First Step Act, which attempts to help individuals convicted of illegal drug distribution in federal prisons re-enter society. The question is whether it could help those with mental illnesses as well. The primary components of the act are as follows:

  • It provides more opportunities for some individuals to reduce the amount of time they spend incarcerated.
  • It provides judges with more latitude when sentencing non-violent offenders.
  • It provides funds to programs aimed at reducing recidivism that are willing to help incarcerated individuals prepare to re-enter society.

The act's "mission statement" revolves around the goal of providing incentives to newly released individuals to take classes that could help them reintegrate into society and leave the criminal justice system ready to work. Some hope this act will help those with mental illnesses do the same, but at present, it does not address this concern.

What the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration wants to do

The SAMHSA aims to correct that problem by increasing opportunities for seriously mentally ill individuals in the criminal justice system. Its strategic plan aims to do so through the following efforts:

  • It provides training and education for those in various parts of the criminal justice system regarding how to interact with and handle people with serious mental illnesses.
  • It aims to reduce the amount of time an SMI inmate remains in jail or prison and perhaps eliminate the need for it in applicable cases.
  • It wants to improve communication among the relevant agencies in order to provide services to those suffering from SMI.
  • It envisions courts at all governmental levels, providing "therapeutic" courts for SMI individuals.

Part of the problem is that these efforts are at the federal level. Advocates for changes in dealing with SMI individuals at all levels look to federal funding considerations to help encourage states like New Mexico to participate.

In the meantime, if your family member does not receive even basic needs for his or her mental illness, you may need to determine what the legal options are, since your loved one still has civil rights regardless of his or her incarceration.

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McGraw & Strickland, LLC
165 West Lucero Ave.
Las Cruces, NM 88005

Phone: 575-567-3107
Fax: 575-680-1200
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