Mental Health and the Criminal Justice System

NAMI Recommendations for Criminal Justice Reform


The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that 44% of jail inmates and 37% of prison inmates have a mental health condition, yet few receive adequate treatment. NAMI strongly recommends reforming the mental health system as a first step towards criminal justice reform.

As noted in their article, the deinstitutionalization advocated during the 1950s closed many of the mental health treatment facilities that had aided individuals for decades resulted in an overreliance on the criminal justice system. Jails and prisons became holding facilities for individuals with diagnosable mental health conditions.

To overhaul the mental health system (and the criminal justice system) NAMI recommends:

  • Investing in crisis response systems
  • Creating accessible mental health care
  • Building a system that reflects our communities

You can read the full NAMI article “Criminal Justice Reform Means Reforming the Mental Health System” here.

As noted by NAMI, law enforcement officers are generally the first responders when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis. Unfortunately, this means that a large number of individuals with mental health concerns are booked into jail when they are experiencing a crisis. By investing in a crisis response system we can help individuals in a mental health crisis seek treatment instead of automatic incarceration. 

Furthermore, NAMI recommends focusing on treatment, accessible mental health treatment. Mental health care in the United States has become unaffordable with many insurance providers refusing to cover necessary treatment. Without accessible and affordable treatment few people receive the help that they need.

Finally, the system must reflect the community it serves. Not all communities are the same and what works in one will not necessarily work in another. By tailoring the treatment, services, and response to the community at hand, the more likely it is to be successful.