Why the US Criminal Justice System is Overwhelmed by Schizophrenia

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1898 words
Sewanee University of the South
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Argumentative essay
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A huge proportion of people in the United States criminal justice system are suffering from some kind of mental illness. Estimates show that each year, hundreds of thousands of individuals with mental condition of varying severity are sent to jail. Such people are much more likely to do time in prison than be sent to a mental institution. In particular, individuals suffering from schizophrenia are at a higher risk of getting involved with the criminal justice system when compared to the general population. This essay looks at why the United States criminal justice system is unable to respond adequately to issues related to schizophrenia due to inadequate skills, resources and facilities.

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In some urban centers across America, a significant percentage of all calls that the police receive are from individuals suffering from mental illness or who have severe emotional problems. This situation highlights how an overwhelmed criminal justice system is now the de facto babysitter of emotionally disturbed or mentally handicapped individuals. From police departments to courthouses to jails and prisons, caring for people with mental health issues is taking a toll on law enforcement. Many of these authorities acknowledge the fact that they neither have the expertise nor the resources to handle such a momentous responsibility.

It is worth looking at the financial and human cost incurred by the nation for not giving a sufficient attention to the almost 10 million citizens suffering from serious mental illness. According to an analysis carried out by the Justice Department in 2006, roughly 1.2 million individuals in local, state and federal custody did report some sort of a mental health issue. The national assessment is one of the most recent ones on the mental status of prisoners. The report may have been inclusive of a wide variety of definitions ranging from minor symptoms to serious illness. All in all, the figures consisted of 56% of inmates in state prisons, 64% in jails, and 45% within the federal prison system (Washburn et al, 116). There is also the chronic cycle of arrest and confinement of people accused of minor offenses as well as the poverty stricken that cannot afford bail. Such a situation can only been seen as harassment directed towards the mentally ill. Out on the streets, encounters between the police and mentally challenged or emotionally disturbed individuals are gradually diverting resources away from the traditional roles of public safety. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that it is a common occurrence for some police departments to receive over 20% of the calls requesting services from emotionally disturbed people on a daily basis.

In the most disturbing of the above-mentioned encounters, police officers are forced to make dangerous life-and-death decisions and diagnoses that are probably best left to psychologists. They did not request for this extra challenge; it was forced upon them due to circumstances beyond their control. There is movement across the country that has for a long time been de-institutionalized and which has led to the closure of state hospitals to pave way for community-based mental health centers. It seems that the network of facilities did not turn out the way lawmakers had expected when the Community Mental Health Centers Act was passed by Congress in 1963. Perhaps the only way to justify closure of hospitals was to pave way for new treatment or medication that allow mentally challenged individuals be treated in another way. However, that did not happen; meaning that such people end up within the criminal justice system since it its the only place that they cannot be turned away. When emotionally disturbed individuals are charged with crimes irrespective of how minor, the system has to bring them in.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is a top advocate for mental health in the US, based in Washington DC. It has called for the formation of special units within law enforcements agencies around the nation to assist in dealing with cases to do with mentally ill individuals, those with disabilities or behavior problems. Of the over 17,000 police agencies located in the nation, more than 2,700 have formed the so-called CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) programs. NAMI has always stated that police are usually the first responders in case an individual goes through psychiatric distress. Each community expects them to provide the training and knowledge needed to handle mental health crisis instances compassionately and safely. Also, behavioral crisis events appear to be on the increase, with crisis calls forming almost one in every five calls to police department CIT coordinators requesting for service. This underlines some of the difficult challenges that law enforcement agencies are faced with. To make matters worse, the number of CIT-trained officers is not enough to respond to most mental health calls. Hence, the outcomes of thousands of such calls cannot be improved even if they are answered by properly trained office; something that unnecessarily adds the risk of bodily harm resulting from physical altercations during the calls. The never ending stream of calls related to mental health underline the extent to which the role of policing has expanded and changed. Individuals are calling law enforcement officers asking for solutions to their day-to-day problems. Such people have integrated the police into their daily lives, with some requiring the departments to do things that one would not imagine. Handling mentally disturbed individuals is part of it although the police departments are well-equipped to deal with such cases.

More often than not, a psychotic incidence will lead to someone calling the authorities. The circumstances of the episode will determine whether or not an arrest will be made, if-in case there is an arrest-it will be peaceful, or the use of force may be necessary to stop or apprehend someone. All this will depend on what exactly is happening, how the individual is behaving, whether or not someone else is at risk, and the officers training, interpretation of the incidence, and current mood. It is worth mentioning a report released by the Treatment Advocacy Center in 2015 that presents a rather disturbing statistic. A person with untreated mental condition has a 16 times more likelihood of being shot dead by law enforcement officers than any other civilian stopped or approached by police. Over the years, the United States has exhausted the public mental health system. Consequently, police officers are often the first responders to incidences involving mental health disturbances, even when they are not trained for it.

If American citizens had access to comprehensive support and care, law enforcement officers most likely would not have to get involved in most of the incidences that often end up ugly. However, very often that is not happening in the US. The law states that an individual has to be in some kind of imminent danger to himself or herself, or others prior to being required to go through any form of treatment against their will. According to advocates, the problem with this kind of provision is that individuals suffering from mental health conditions can be quite unpredictable. While they may exhibit some warning signs, it is difficult to tell whether they will actually pose some danger. Also, they may not be in a position to understand everything that is going on around them when they go through an episode. Thus, they would not necessarily put a check on themselves for their own safety, even if something dangerous is about to happen.

At the root of these interactions between police officers and mentally challenged people is an even worse problem. In the United States, mental health care is pathetically underfunded, meaning that the only institution that can be tasked with handling the situation is the criminal justice system. Consequently, roughly 30% of females and 15% of males languishing in prison suffer from a serious mental health condition. According to NAMI, most of these inmates do not receive the required care in the course of their incarceration. Much of the role played by the criminal justice system came into being following the widespread closure of government-run mental health institutions. Some rather valid concerns had been raised to do with civil liberties behind the closures. For instance, should an individual be forcibly sent to a mental health facility just because family members think he or she is violent and dangerous? The definition of dangerous or violent in such scenarios also came into question, together with who decides whether the victim is actually suffering from a mental condition.

The above-mentioned concerns were especially prominent given the rampant abuse of patients in government mental hospitals from the 1950s up to around the 1970s. Today, experts agree that the manner in which numerous old mental institutions were being run at the time was without doubt dangerous and posing a health risk to many patients. All in all, mental health care has since then changed and undergone improvement, especially through advances made in outpatient and private care as well as community clinics. However, these facilities are often insufficiently funded and too expensive for most patients. Consequently, law enforcement and the criminal justice system of most of the times the first ones to respond to incidences involving mental health issues.

The situation seems to be worsening as days go by. In several report cards, NAMI made known some of the budgetary cuts made after the Great Recession. Over the past few years or so, almost all the states made substantial cuts in spending to mental health care. To make matters worse, the cuts were made to a system already under criticism by NAMI for a long time as being extremely underfunded. The consequences of this situation were summarized in a national survey carried out by the Treatment Advocacy Center in 2014. According to its findings, the numbers of mentally ill inmates in jails and prisons continue to rise. Also, the severity of their illnesses is on the increase. The survey also found out that the number of incarcerated people suffering from serious mental illnesses outnumbers those in government hospitals by a ratio of 10 to 1.

These holding facilities are supposed to offer some kind of care for the individuals incarcerated in them. However, this is just not the case. Most of the times, prisons and jails are not equipped with the resources to provide such care. NAMI states that more than 83% of all inmates suffering from mental conditions have no access to important treatment. It is worth bearing in mind that most individuals suffering from mental illnesses are not actually violent. Many of them have been incarcerated for low-level and minor offenses such as drug possession, littering, loitering and criminal trespassing. As a matter of fact, they are more likely to be victims of violence as opposed to perpetrators. Also, only about 3%-5% of the acts of violence in the US are done by individuals suffering from serious mental diseases in a given year. On the other hand, 4.2% of adults in the country are inflicted with a serious mental condition that significantly curtails their life activities. All in all, some of these individuals can undergo dangerous crises. Given the gaps in funding, law enforcement officers have been tasked with being first responders to such events. There is no denying that psychotic people will in one way or another try to seek help. However, the current system is set up in a way that it neither helps them nor makes it easy until they actually get arrested.

Works Cited

Castillo, Marjorine. "Disruptive Behavior Disorders in Childhood and Criminal Justice System Involvement i...

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