The Connection between Mental Health and Incarceration

Anyone who wants to help reform America’s broken prison system needs to pay attention to the nation’s psychologists.  “The prison population has rates of mental illness at least three times the national average,” reports the American Psychological Association. The connection makes sense: we have a serious lack of community mental health services in this country, and people who are left untreated are more likely to get in trouble with the law. Incarceration is not going to help these people. Psychologists have been studying the background of criminal behavior for decades, and theirs is a critical perspective if we want to actually lower crime rates AND lower prisoner rates.


According to an article by Health Affairs, it states that “across the nation, individuals with severe mental illness are three times more likely to be in a jail or prison than in a mental health facility and 40 percent of individuals with a severe mental illness will have spent some time in their lives in either jail, prison, or community corrections.” It should be in our interest to provide inmates with the appropriate treatment because if mentally ill offenders receive the appropriate treatment they would be less likely to offend again. If they do not receive treatment, the harsh and violent environment of prison is likely to make their illness worse, which could leave them more susceptible to commit further offenses once they are released from prison. The justice system duty, of course, is to punish the offender but also to reduce the risk the offender poses to society. For some offenders, mental health treatment is more likely to achieve this than prison.

P.S. As a society, we should provide any sick person with the treatment they need. Healthcare is a basic and fundamental right that should not be abridged. But, our country’s lack of mental health treatment options is such an extreme problem that jails actually function as some of the nation’s biggest mental health providers. Listen to this NPR story from America’s largest jail, in Cook County, Illinois:



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