Do the mentally ill go to jail? Should they?

By David Joel Miller.

Why do so many mentally ill people end up in jail?



Mentally ill people are not supposed to end up in jail simply because they are mentally ill. Unfortunately, our jails and prisons are clogging up with the mentally ill because our systems can’t always find appropriate housing and treatment options.

At this point, I need to point out that we are finding more and more that there are NOT two distinct groups – the mentally ill and the “Normal People.”  People with mental illness can have episodes where they get better or worse. Some mentally ill do recovery. There are also a lot of people who look normal for most of their life and then something happens that they can’t cope with and they find themselves in the mentally ill group.

The person who finds out their partner is cheating may “flip out.” And show up at that work site with a gun. Before they found out about the affair they were apparently normal people but once they start shooting up the workplace they get reclassified as “mentally ill.” In that respect, people with long-term mental illnesses get a bad rap. The chronically mentally ill are more likely to be victimized than to attack others. They are also way more likely to get murdered than to kill anyone.

There are three principal reasons that law enforcement come in contact with the mentally ill.

1. The person is thinking of harming themselves or they are so disabled they can’t care for themselves.

While completing suicide is illegal in most places, the person who has tried to kill themselves really does not belong in jail.

Most places have a system called involuntary commitment that allows this person to be placed in a mental hospital BRIEFLY for observation and treatment. Unfortunately, once they stop wanting to kill themselves they get released. We can offer services but it is difficult to impossible to make that person stay in treatment for any length of time.

Additionally, in far too many places there is a shortage of resources for these people and often waiting times to access services.

Just because the person is suicidal does not make this an easy situation for first responders. The suicidal person may harm a bystander in their efforts to end their life, especially if authorities try to stop this attempt. There is also the risk that they will threaten law enforcement, resulting in the increasingly more common “suicide-by-cop.”

2. They are doing something illegal or causing someone a problem.

Police encounter the mentally ill in all sorts of situations. They try to sleep in people’s yards and use their water. Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of mentally ill that have ended up homeless. Add together the distortions in thinking that come from their disorder and the life skills homeless people need to develop to get by and they come in conflict with authority a lot.

When the mentally ill get too loud, don’t move along when told to do so or act hostile and scare someone, the police get called. Usually, after a confrontation, the only alternative is to take them in.

Even if the police would prefer to not keep this person many communities just have no other place to house them. So minor lawbreakers, vagrants, petty shoplifters and the like, with mental illnesses, end up in jail for a period of time.

Sheriffs from two of our larger American cities have been quoted recently as saying they are now the largest residential housing facility for the mentally ill in their state. There just is no place to put many of these folks.

3. They are under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Anyone who does drugs and alcohol to excess can have a problem. The mentally ill are at high risk to abuse substances. In our American culture, those without a diagnosed mental illness are also at high risk to abuse substances.

There is a huge overlap between mental illness and substance abuse. Some mentally ill use alcohol or drugs to mask their symptoms while others started out drinking and drugging and now have developed symptoms of a mental health disorder as a result of their substance abuse.

It is also worth noting that a whole lot of people are in jail for drug and alcohol related offenses. Those who are fortunate enough to end up in rehab programs are often found to have a mental or emotional disorder.

Incarcerating people in jails has not been working to reduce either mental illness or substance abuse. More treatment options are desperately needed.

Shockingly the most common response from the politicians and the general public is to get tough on all these people and lock them up. The proponents of more incarceration hold that view until they or someone in their family ends up in jail or prison and then they ask why there were not more treatment options available earlier.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings, and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books


3 thoughts on “Do the mentally ill go to jail? Should they?

  1. Pingback: What’s the big deal if a therapist smokes a little dope? Ethical Loopholes Part 2 | counselorssoapbox

  2. Pingback: Mentally Ill keep Big Tobacco profitable – dying to smoke | counselorssoapbox

  3. Pingback: Growing up mentally ill effects every part of your life | counselorssoapbox

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