Occasionally policymakers and activists will talk about how the justice system needs to keep mentally ill people out of prisons. If it did that, prisons would be very empty indeed. A new Urban Institute report points out that more than half of all inmates in jails and state prisons have a mental illness of some kind:
Percent of Inmates Who Have Mental or Mood Issues
The most common problem is depression, followed by bipolar disorder.
Types of Mental Issues Among State and Federal Inmates
The numbers are even more stark when parsed by gender: 55 percent of male inmates in state prisons are mentally ill, but 73 percent of female inmates are. Meanwhile, the think-tank writes, "only one in three state prisoners and one in six jail inmates who suffer from mental-health problems report having received mental-health treatment since admission."
An increasingly popular program might help thin the ranks of these sick, untreated inmates. What are known as "mental-health courts" have sprung up in a number of states as an alternative to incarceration. A shoplifter who has, say, schizophrenia might be screened and found eligible for mental-health court, and then be sentenced to judicially supervised treatment. These types of courts have expanded rapidly since 2000, and there are now hundreds around the country.