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At least 16 percent of the nation’s jail and prison inmates are estimated to be mentally ill, and about 40 percent of the mentally ill have been incarcerated. Many of the homeless are also mentally ill, according to the New York Times. Experts say approximately 20 percent of inmates in jails and 15 percent of prisoners in state prisons have a serious mental illness. This means there are just over 356,000 inmates with severe mental illness in jails and state prisons.

Numerous suicide attempts and bizarre behavior is exhibited by some of these people on a daily basis in our jails and prisons at a rate as much as 85% more often than the rest of the incarcerated population.

In Hennepin County in Minnesota, a man with schizophrenia stabbed out both of his eyes with a pencil in his cell. Other people suffering from mental illness have languished in dark and lonely cells, often untreated, for decades. It’s a huge problem in the state’s largest jail in Hennepin County, where Sheriff Rich Stanek estimates between 25 to 30 percent of prisoners suffer from diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illness

In response to these paramount issues, the New York Times dedicated an excellent article addressing the issues of mental illness and jail. Four experts provided possible solutions to this growing problem.

Jamie Fellner, a senior adviser at Human Rights Watch, wrote, “Jails and prisons have become de facto mental health facilities: prisoners have rates of mental illness two to four times greater than for the general public. Prisons and jails are the worst possible place for people with serious mental health problems.”

Ann-Marie Louison, the director of adult behavioral health programs at the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, said “A small number of individuals with serious mental illnesses need long-term hospital care, but no one should need this level of care forever.

Ayesha Delany-Brumsey is the director of, and Chelsea Davis is a research associate at, the Substance Use and Mental Health program at the Vera Institute of Justice. said “For many, mental illness goes hand-in-hand with drug use, either because substance use exacerbates their symptoms or because they self-medicate with drugs.

And, Fred Osher director of Health Systems and Services Policy at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, added, “The answer is not simply to build more psychiatric facilities, but rather to fulfill the promise of deinstitutionalization by providing effective treatment and supports in the least restrictive setting.”

We think all of these opinions are well thought out and spot on. We add another dimension to the mentally challenged and the criminal justice system Through the past few decades, we have come to believe that many in this group often are charged with crimes that require intent, and even though a “mental illness” or insanity defense is not available, many of us feel that the defendant did not mean to cause a particular result.

Rather, some are caught up in a gray area between justifiable or excusable conduct and behavior that is shaped by years of frustration caused by conceived conditions (mental or physical) that may not conform to the “norm” as determined by their peers. A stuttering condition, hearing loss, high anxiety, physical difference or something similar, can cause high degrees of self-awareness and obsessive behavior that can lead to spontaneous eruptions of anger and aggression. When the person acts on this aggression, crimes often occur. Indeed, we estimate that 65% of violent crimes are committed when the defendant is in this heightened state of mind.

The criminal justice system continues to keep the topic of mental illness on the front burner, and regularly bringing the issue before the public is a good thing. Mental health assistance for those yet to enter the abyss is equally as important. Whether we are referring to young boys or girls with a stutter,  with weight problems or someone who is the victim of bullying on social media, quick and efficient mental assistance must be available to these people. Mental illness is the single most important issue in the country today.

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