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Behavioral Health


Policymakers and practitioners across the criminal justice system recognize that our nation’s jails have replaced a fully functioning mental health system. Mental illness is not a strong predictor of criminal or violent behavior. Yet left untreated, it can lead to behaviors that cause too many individuals to wind up in the criminal justice system.

An estimated 2 million individuals with serious mental illnesses are admitted to jails each year. A 2010 study suggested that at least 15–20 percent of jail and prison inmates are seriously mentally ill, and far more are thought to meet the criteria for a mental health disorder. A 2013 investigation found that the nation’s three largest jails—Cook County, Los Angeles County, and New York City—treated 11,000 prisoners on any given day. Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca famously once said: “I run the biggest mental hospital in the country.”

Once incarcerated, individuals with mental illnesses tend to stay longer in jail and are more likely to return to prison.

Legislation and Policy Recommendations


21st Century CURES Act


In December 2016, Congress passed and President Obama signed the 21st Century CURES Act to bring needed reforms to our nation’s mental health system and provide federal support to states and localities seeking to find more effective ways to solve the problem. The 300+ page bill authorizes $1 billion in grants for states over two years to fight the opioid epidemic; encourages states to provide community-based alternatives to institutionalization for those with serious mental illness; seeks to make treatment programs more accessible, including for the justice-involved population; seeks to speed development of new medicines and medical devices; seeks to increase the number of crisis mental health beds; authorizes an additional nearly $5 billion for new medical research; strengthens mental health parity requirements; reauthorizes the Mentally Ill Offender and Crime Reduction Act grant program; and, establishes an Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use at the Department of Health and Human Services with experience in mental health and substance use treatment. View a section-by-section summary of the 21st Century CURES Act.

Consensus Workgroup on Behavioral Health Issues in Criminal Justice


The NCJA is engaged with the Consensus Workgroup on Behavioral Health Issues in Criminal Justice (CW). Launched in December, 2016 by the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers, the CW promotes interdisciplinary collaboration on policy, research and practice issues at the intersection of behavioral health and criminal justice, a coalition six months in the making. The CW developed recommendations for the Trump Administration and 115th Congress. 

Using Byrne JAG to Fund Behavioral Health Programs and Services


Among the most pressing challenges facing criminal justice policymakers and practitioners today are the dual goals of: 1) meeting the treatment needs of the mentally ill in jail and prison; and, 2) connecting individuals with mental, or behavioral, health disorders to appropriate treatment and services so they avoid going to jail in the first place.

State Administering Agencies (SAAs) across the country are investing their Byrne JAG dollars in programs and services that address the needs of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system, by diverting individuals to treatment before arrest or incarceration and by providing services for individuals returning to the community after jail or prison. Examples of these behavioral programs and services can be found in this one-pager, which summarizes findings from our interviews with SAAs regarding Byrne JAG expenditures during FY 2013-14.

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