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A Call To End The 'Criminalization Of Mental Illness'

National Alliance on Mental Illness 2023 State Legislation Issue Brief Series

People with mental illness are disproportionately present in the nation’s criminal justice system. About two in five prisoners have a history of mental illness, twice the prevalence of mental illness in the overall population.

These numbers represent real people that our mental health system has failed, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), in a new brief on the problem.

The group says, "Fortunately, we know that diversion from the criminal justice system is possible, and NAMI believes that people with mental illness should be diverted at every possible opportunity and be connected to mental health care."

One of the best tools for understanding how communities can divert people with mental health and substance use conditions away from criminal justice system involvement is what NAMI calls the Sequential Intercept Model (SIM).

SIM spans from community services aimed at preventing any criminal justice system involvement, to key intercept points along the justice system continuum, including law enforcement, detention hearings, jails and courts, re-entry, and community corrections.

The NAMI brief provides legislators with policy recommendations that support those with mental health conditions who are at risk of being or are justice system-involved.

The recommendations are divided into five categories: diversion, juvenile justice, conditions in custody, competency restoration and civil commitment

Each category includes a description of policymaking trends, legislation passed in the prior year and links to additional legislation.

NAMI says it "strongly believes that the best solution for diverting individuals with mental illness away from criminal justice system involvement is through early intervention, comprehensive community mental health care and a robust crisis response system."

The brief concludes that, "People with mental illness deserve care, not incarceration. Yet we continue to see the criminalization of mental illness that perpetuates the overrepresentation of people with mental illness in our criminal justice system. Policymakers have the opportunity to change this."


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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