Policymakers share ideas on how to reduce recidivism by better addressing mental health issues of offenders

Stateline Midwest

While 5 percent of the general U.S. population is affected by a serious mental illness, the rate in state prisons is much higher: 24 percent among females and 16 percent among males.

More than half the time, these illnesses occur in conjunction with substance abuse — a combination that, when left untreated, can lead to an increased risk of recidivism, according to Hallie Fader-Towe, a program director at The Council of State Governments’ Justice Center. She led a discussion on mental health and the criminal justice system at the Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting in July.

This high rate of recidivism stresses state correctional systems and causes costs to skyrocket.

“If we can identify ‘high utilizers’ of the system and quickly wrap our arms around them with treatment, supervision and case management, we can intercept people before they are using the expensive services,” said Fader-Towe, who, along with her CSG Justice Center colleagues, works with states to close the “revolving door” in their correctional systems.

States are best served, she added, by allocating resources toward people with the highest risk of recidivism. One way to identify these individuals is by assessing their “criminogenic risk” — factors such as lack of education, substance abuse, family discord and criminal history.

Michigan Sen. Bruce Caswell knows all too well the costs in his state of mental illness in the correctional system. His state spends $34,000 per prisoner in a given year. Multiply that by 40,000 inmates, and the state is spending “too much of the general fund” on corrections, he said.

“We give [inmates] two weeks of medication and say, ‘Good luck,’” Caswell said. “And we wonder why they are re-offending.”

During the roundtable discussion, Caswell shared  one successful initiative in Michigan — a program that assigns a “coach” to mentally ill inmates upon their release. The coaches follow up with these individuals for three to four months, making sure they have their medications and have found work.

“Almost no one in this program went back [to prison],” Caswell said. “The savings more than paid for the costs.”

North Dakota Sen. Tim Mathern discussed a county-based program from his state that hired mental health professionals to assess offenders in jail. If certain mental health disorders were detected, individuals received services instead of being charged.

South Dakota Sen. Craig Tieszen, a former law enforcement officer, pointed out, too, that the availability of these services can shape judicial decisions.

“Judges are responsible for public and community safety,” he said. “If they are less comfortable with the mental health services available, they are going to take the safe route and put [offenders] in jail.”

Policymakers can help, he said, by allowing judges to “operate outside the box” when imposing sentences.

Fader-Towe agreed: “Treating all offenders in the same way, without identifying their criminogenic risk, hampers your ability to reduce recidivism.”