Judicial System

Each year, millions of people with mental health conditions end up in contact with justice systems for various minor offenses — in large part, because they did not receive the mental health care they needed. But few of these individuals will get access to evidence-based treatment while incarcerated, and incarceration often exacerbates mental health conditions, increasing suffering.1M. E. Onah, “The Patient-to-Prisoner Pipeline: The IMD Exclusion’s Adverse Impact on Mass Incarceration in United States,” Am J Law Med 44, no. 1 (March 2018): 119–44, https://doi.org/10.1177/0098858818763818.

Incarceration of individuals with mental health conditions who have not committed a crime is a solution that serves no one, and a critical policy issue facing the nation.

There are three times as many individuals with severe mental illness who live in prisons compared with psychiatric long term care.


Number of municipal, state, and federal inmates who suffer from some form of mental illness.2Sarah Varney, “By the Numbers: Mental Illness behind Bars,” 2014.


Almost 25% of men and 1/3 of women booked into jails have severe mental illness (SMI)—three to six times the prevalence rate of the general population.3Prins, “Does Transinstitutionalization Explain the Overrepresentation of People with Serious Mental Illnesses in the Criminal Justice System?”


People with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder in the public mental health system who have had some type of criminal justice involvement during a two-year period.

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This is a public health, human rights, and even an economic issue — inappropriate incarceration wastes millions of dollars annually in additional justice expenses.

Tailored Policies for Unique Needs

To be effective, mental health solutions need to address individuals' range of identities based on race, ethnicity, language, gender, or gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, veteran's status, or life circumstances. We recommend meaningful policies to combat a harmful legacy of one-size-fits-all solutions.

Explore our recommended policies for focus populations

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