Justice Policy for People with Mental Illness

People with serious mental illness are grossly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Like their relatively healthy counterparts, most of these people are supervised in the community on probation or parole. But people with mental illness are twice as likely to have their community supervision revoked and return to incarceration.

These problems have attracted substantial policy attention. Virtually all programs assume that mental illness is the direct cause of the problem, and linkage with psychiatric services is the solution. For example, specialty mental health caseloads have been recommended to go beyond "controlling" offenders (to protect public safety) to also provide "care" that features mental health services.

Based on a large trial, we find that probationers under specialty supervision are less likely to be re-arrested than those under traditional supervision. But these positive effects are not explained by better symptom control (instead, they are explained by better officer practices). Combined with other research, this suggests that offenders with mental disorder have much in common with their non-disordered counterparts. To achieve better outcomes for this group, it is important to look beyond psychiatric explanations and solutions.

Currently, we are studying a new, promising Intervention for justice-involved people with mental illness.