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Mental Illness Overrepresented in Probation Population

Adults on probation are more than twice as likely to have a serious or moderate mental illness as those in the general public, found an analysis of federal data from 2015 to 2019 by The Pew Charitable Trusts. This translates into over 830,000 adults with a mental illness who are on probation at any given time each year or almost a quarter of the total. Most of these individuals also have a co-occurring substance use disorder, with the rate of adults on probation with both a mental illness and substance abuse disorder over five times that of adults in the public. A survey of probation agencies nationwide by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) in partnership with Pew and the American Probation and Parole Association indicated that although agencies were aware that 20% to 25% of people under their supervision had mental health issues, most agencies did not have specialized mental health approaches and provided their officers with limited training related to mental health.

About 42% of probation agencies do not require any mental health training for their officers with standard caseloads. For agencies with specialized mental health approaches, most require fewer than three days of mental health training, with 25% of agencies requiring no training at all. While having a mental illness can create challenges in meeting the conditions of supervision, fewer than 1 in 4 agencies had discretion in setting supervision conditions or determining sanctions for probation violations for people with a mental illness. Although agencies used various methods to identify whether a person on probation had a mental illness, fewer than 2 in 5 reported using a mental health-specific tool and only 29% of agencies tracked a person’s mental health status in their electronic case management system. The overrepresentation indicates that reducing the number of people on probation with a mental illness will require a comprehensive approach that includes the entirety of the justice system as well as crisis response and behavioral health providers.


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