Why Our Criminal Justice System Discussions Must Include Mental Health

Our Justice System Can't Cope with Mental Illness

Do people with mental illnesses belong in jail? While the crimes they are accused of are often petty ones, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year. The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) estimates that 16 percent of 48,000 individuals in the total DOC population have a mental health disorder.

Unfortunately, jail only makes their conditions worse since at least 83% of jailed inmates with a mental illness don’t receive the treatment they need and wind up staying longer than prisoners without mental illness.

Even after they get out of jail, a criminal record makes it harder for the mentally ill to get a job, housing, or access to needed health care and benefits. Many wind up homeless or in emergency rooms and face future arrests.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  The mentally ill often end up in jail because of small decisions made by different local officials. For example, the police can choose to take a mentally ill person home, to the hospital, or a shelter instead of to jail. Prosecutors can choose whether or not to bring charges. Judges can set higher or lower bail amounts so poorer defendants can avoid pre-trial detention and keep their jobs and housing.  And good attorneys can recognize when people have a mental illness and fight in their defense.

The experienced and seasoned Illinois criminal law attorneys at Wolfe & Stec, Ltd. understand the seriousness of the situation and offer aggressive representation for mentally ill clients facing criminal charges. We know the courts and the criminal justice system, how to plea bargain, negotiate guidelines, and recognize when to take a case to trial. When we take on a criminal case, we look at all viable defense options. We have been successful in helping people with mental illness and will do everything possible to vigorously fight for you or your loved one.

We offer a free initial consultation. If you have been accused of any criminal charges, get help today by calling 630-305-0222.

Challenges Faced in the Criminal Justice System by Individuals With Mental Health Issues

The criminal justice challenges confronting individuals with mental health issues are multifaceted and deeply entrenched. Here are some unique challenges faced by these vulnerable individuals:

1. Stigmatization and Discrimination

Individuals with mental health issues often face pervasive stigmatization and discrimination within the criminal justice system. Misconceptions and stereotypes can lead to unfair judgments, hindering the ability of those with mental health conditions to receive fair treatment. The stigma attached to mental health not only affects how individuals are perceived within the system but also impacts their chances of rehabilitation and successful reintegration into society.

2. Lack of Access to Mental Health Services

Access to adequate mental health services is a fundamental right that is frequently denied to those within the criminal justice system. Limited resources and a lack of specialized mental health programs contribute to the inadequate treatment of individuals with mental health issues. As a result, underlying conditions may remain unaddressed, leading to a cycle of reoffending and repeated encounters with the criminal justice system.

3. Overrepresentation in the Prison Population

One alarming trend is the overrepresentation in the prison population of individuals with mental health issues. The system often becomes a revolving door for those struggling with mental health, as their conditions are not appropriately addressed, leading to recurrent involvement with law enforcement. This overrepresentation underscores the need for systemic change that prioritizes mental health services, diversion programs, and alternatives to incarceration.

4. Inadequate Training for Criminal Justice Professionals

Criminal justice professionals, including law enforcement officers, attorneys, and judges, may lack the necessary training to identify and respond effectively to individuals who have mental health issues. This deficiency in training can result in misunderstandings, escalated confrontations, and inappropriate responses, exacerbating the challenges faced by those in the system who suffer mental health conditions.

5. Limited Collaboration between Legal and Mental Health Professionals

Effective collaboration between legal and mental health professionals is crucial for addressing the challenges faced by individuals who have with mental health problems. Unfortunately, such collaboration is often limited, leading to missed opportunities for early intervention, appropriate treatment, and support. A more integrated approach involving legal and mental health experts can result in better outcomes for individuals at risk of becoming entangled in the criminal justice system.

6. Inadequate Re-entry Support

Reintegration into society is a critical phase for individuals leaving the criminal justice system. For those with mental health issues, the challenges can be particularly daunting. The lack of comprehensive re-entry support, including access to mental health services, housing, and employment opportunities, can contribute to high rates of recidivism, perpetuating the cycle of incarceration.

What Is Being Done?

Most often, people with mental illness are jailed for minor offenses, such as trespassing, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, or illicit drug use.  Often, these are “crimes of survival,” such as retail theft of food or supplies or breaking and entering to find a place to sleep.

Society is beginning to recognize that jailing such individuals greatly burdens law enforcement, corrections, and state and local budgets without protecting public safety. It makes more sense to help provide treatment for those with mental illness instead of criminalizing them.

Here are some positive steps that should be or are being taken:

1. Education

Change must start by educating those in the criminal justice system to recognize and deal with the mentally ill. Students training for criminal justice careers in the U.S. should be given training on how to deal with the mental illness of justice-involved populations.

However, according to a study published by the Journal of Criminal Justice Education and posted online on December 30, 2016, most criminal justice degree-granting institutions in the U.S. don’t offer undergraduate coursework on mental illness.  The study found that “only 40 institutions (roughly 6.25 percent) offer an elective course on mental illness to their criminal justice students,” but this course was not required.

Fortunately, in Cook County, Sheriff Tom Dart instituted a program in 2006 where all incoming staff, including the 300 to 400 new correctional officers hired annually, receive 60 hours of advanced training in the treatment of mental illness.

2. Screening Programs

Cook County has added a mental-health screening for people arrested and taken to the county jail for processing and a bond hearing. Arrested individuals are interviewed to find alternatives to deal with the mentally ill that can be suggested to the judge.

3. Resources and Treatment

According to one report, the number of state psychiatric beds in the nation fell from a high of about 550,000 in 1960 to barely 40,000 in 2014. Today, the preferred strategy is to treat mentally ill patients in their communities and provide resources and treatment that will keep them from coming into conflict with the police.

The NAMI believes that support should include treatment for drug and alcohol use, as well as supports like housing, education, employment, and peer and family support. Communities should create options to divert the mentally ill to treatment and services—before arrest, after arrest, and at all points in the justice system. If in jail, these individuals should have access to needed medication and support, be signed up for health coverage if possible, and get help planning their release to ensure they get back on track.

See more in NAMI’s guidance on Responding to Crises.

Cook County has found success by combining “supportive” housing (which includes rent subsidies and mental health treatment services) and teams composed of mental health specialists coordinating treatment, housing, and employment support. The strategy has produced an 89 percent reduction in arrests of people with mental illness, an 86 percent reduction in jail time and a 76 percent drop in hospitalizations among participants.

How Wolfe & Stec Criminal Defense Lawyers Can Help

At Wolfe & Stec Ltd, we understand the complexities surrounding mental health in the criminal justice system. Our commitment to justice goes beyond traditional legal representation—we prioritize a holistic approach that acknowledges and addresses the mental health challenges our clients may be facing.

1. Comprehensive Case Assessment

Our criminal defense attorneys conduct thorough case assessments, taking into account the mental health history of our clients. By understanding the underlying factors contributing to criminal charges, we can build a strong defense strategy considering legal and mental health aspects.

2. Advocacy for Mental Health Considerations

We advocate tirelessly for our clients’ rights, including their right to receive fair treatment and accommodations for mental health issues within the criminal justice system. Our attorneys work to ensure that mental health considerations are considered during all phases of legal proceedings, from pretrial negotiations to sentencing hearings.

3. Access to Resources and Support

We understand the importance of accessing appropriate mental health resources and support services. Our firm maintains a network of trusted mental health professionals and community organizations that can provide evaluation, treatment, and support for individuals with mental health needs. We work collaboratively with these experts to ensure our clients receive the required care and assistance.

4. Diversion Programs and Alternative Sentencing

Our attorneys explore diversion programs and alternative sentencing options that prioritize rehabilitation over punitive measures. By presenting evidence of our client’s commitment to addressing mental health concerns, we aim to secure alternatives that promote personal growth and reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

5. Mitigation Strategies

In cases where mental health may have played a role in criminal behavior, we employ mitigation strategies to humanize our clients and highlight the factors contributing to their actions. This approach can be instrumental in securing fair and just outcomes, acknowledging the need for accountability and rehabilitation.

Contact Wolfe & Stec for Legal Support Today

If you or a loved one is charged with a crime and has a mental illness, it is essential to retain the services of an experienced defense attorney. The seasoned and compassionate Illinois criminal defense attorneys at Wolfe & Stec, Ltd. know the courts and the system and can often help mentally ill individuals get a dismissal or a lesser offense or penalty.

We are aggressive litigators and will work with you to fully understand the facts surrounding your case and find alternatives to jail.  We represent clients in DuPage County, Naperville, Aurora, Wheaton, Downers Grove and Bolingbrook, and the greater Chicagoland area.

Delaying can only make your situation worse, so call 630-305-0222 today to schedule your free initial consultation.

Attorney Marc Wolfe

Marc Wolfe has been representing clients in criminal matters in Chicago and the entire State of Illinois for over 30 years. Mr. Wolfe has tried over 300 cases to verdict and represents clients facing investigation or prosecution for a broad range of state and federal criminal offenses, including murder, embezzlement, sexual abuse, drugs, marijuana and white collar crimes. [ Attorney Bio ]