This article series is designed to raise awareness about the prevalence of persons with mental illness (PMIs) in the criminal justice system and the challenges it creates for organizations, working professionals, and the PMIs themselves. National statistics suggest that:
- 20% of police calls for service involve mental health or substance abuse crises.
- 28% of people in jail report experiencing serious psychological distress in the past 30 days as compared to only 4% of the general population.
- 74% of people serving sentences in state prisons have some type of mental health or substance abuse problem.
- 32.3% of people on probation and 36.6% of people on parole have a mental illness compared to 18.2% in the general population.
But what accounts for the overrepresentation of PMIs in the criminal justice system, and what are agencies doing to address their specialized needs? These are just a few of the questions explored within this four-part series.
Criminal Justice Professionals Share their Perspectives on Mental Illness
Hello and welcome back to our blog series on mental illness in the criminal justice system. Last month I shared research I conducted on mental health treatment within our prisons. That project opened my eyes to the many challenges experienced by both justice-involved persons suffering with severe mental illness and the criminal justice professionals they encounter. I set out on a mission to learn more and raise public awareness about the issue. During my last semester at EKU, I completed an independent study that culminated in a series of podcasts based on interviews with professionals across the criminal justice system in central Kentucky. Here is what I learned.
Police as first responders
I spoke with Lieutenant Nathanial Muller from the Lexington Police Department. I must admit going into this interview I really didn’t know what to expect in terms of how police departments view mental health. Lieutenant Muller shared how his department is working to improve their response to civilians experiencing a mental health crisis and the culture of the department itself. I left the interview with a renewed sense of hope for a future where the mental health of civilians and police officers is taken seriously.
Legal assistance for persons with several mental health disorders
I had the wonderful opportunity to complete a 3-semester internship with the Department of Public Advocacy (DPA) trial office in Richmond. I had seen firsthand what the attorneys did to try to get mental health care for their clients, but I still had more questions, so I spoke with Brian West, the Deputy Public Advocate for DPA in Kentucky. My conversation with West helped me understand the ways that attorneys can help clients with mental illness, but also the limitations that they face.
Judicial powers for addressing the needs of defendants with mental illness
I interviewed Judge Neal, the chief district judge in the 25th Judicial District in the Bluegrass Region and an adjunct faculty member at EKU. As part of my internship, I had watched Judge Neal preside over court and was very eager to speak to him. I was intrigued to learn about the specific powers that judges have in providing mental health assistance to defendants and the politics involved with creating mental health courts.
The promise of mental health courts
Eager to learn more about mental health courts, I interviewed Chamie Markey, the regional supervisor and former case manager for the Hardin County Mental Health Court. While conducting research for my thesis, I learned that the effectiveness of mental health courts varied from state to state depending on a wide range of variables. Therefore, I was very interested to learn more about how the Hardin County Mental Health Court worked to help these individuals in a system that is seemingly against them. I was glad to learn that this court works to provide as much specialized care as they can, even with limited resources.
Case management for inmates with mental illness
I interviewed Rachel Taylor, who worked as a prison case manager for inmates suffering from mental illness. Ms. Taylor really helped me to understand the process prisons use to seek treatment for inmates during and after their incarceration. I was surprised to learn how the process limited her ability to make individualized treatment plans that address inmates’ specific needs. This and the lack of resources within the prison made her job much more difficult since people respond differently to available treatment models. I was, however, encouraged by her clear passion for helping these people and seeing them as more than “criminals.”
I am grateful for the opportunity to interview these professionals about their experiences with justice-involved persons with mental illness and the many insights they shared about the challenges and opportunities for addressing their needs. You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the links provided above for each segment. I hope that you will find the podcast informative and will share it with friends and colleagues to increase public awareness about this critical need in the criminal justice system. I firmly believe that public awareness is the first step to creating change.
By: Sophie Owen, 2023 Graduate of EKU’s Criminal Justice Program
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About the Author
Betsy Matthews is an Associate Professor in EKU’s College of Justice, Safety and Military Science, and the program coordinator for the online Corrections and Juvenile Justice Studies program. She received her Ph.D. in criminal justice from the University of Cincinnati and has a blend of practical and academic experience.
Betsy began her career as a childcare worker in a residential treatment facility for behaviorally disordered adolescents before moving into an adult probation officer position in Greene County, Ohio. She also served as a research associate on federally funded grant projects for the American Probation and Parole Association. Dr. Matthew’s research interests include community corrections, correctional rehabilitation, and women, crime, and criminal justice.
[i] Skeem, J. L., Winter, E., Kennealy, P. J., Louden, J. E., & Tatar, J. R. II. (2014). Offenders with mental illness have criminogenic needs, too: toward recidivism reduction. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24377913/
[ii] Risdon N. Slate, Kelly Frailing, W. Wesley Johnson, Jacqueline K. Buffington (2021). The Criminalization of Mental Illness: Crisis and Opportunity for the Justice System, Third Edition. https://www.cap-press.com/books/isbn/9781611630398/The-Criminalization-of-Mental-Illness-Second-Edition
[iii] Amam Z. Saleh a, Paul S. Appelbaum b, Xiaoyu Liu b, T. Scott Stroup b, Melanie Wall b (2018). Deaths of people with mental illness during interactions with law enforcement. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0160252717301954
[iv] Gosselin, Denise Kindschi (2019). Crime and Mental Disorders: The Criminal Justice Response, Second Edition. https://www.westacademic.com/Gosselins-Crime-and-Mental-Disorders-The-Criminal-Justice-Response-2d-9781684673896