Mental Health Conditions Among Inmates

The Prevalence of Mental Illness Among those Incarcerated


According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than half of those incarcerated in America’s jails and prisons had a mental health problem. Specifically, 61% of inmates in state prison and 44% of inmates in local jail reported having a mental problem. Mental health problems were established either through a recent history or diagnosable symptoms. 

A recent history of a mental health problem was determined through a clinical diagnosis or treatment by a mental health professional. Symptoms were based on “criteria specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV).”

Common mental health problems experienced by inmates include:

  • Mania
  • Major depression
  • Psychotic disorders

Mental Health Disorders and Type of Offense

The Bureau of Justice Statistics looked at inmates who had mental health problems and the most serious type of offense they committed.

According to their findings, of the inmates who met the criteria for a mental health problem, their most serious offense was:

  • 20% had a violent offense;
  • 20% had committed a property offense; and
  • 19% had a drug offense.

Robbery was the most common offense committed by those with a mental health problem, followed by drug trafficking and homicide. Studies showed that individuals with mental health disorders are expected to serve longer sentences (on average an additional four months) compared to those without a mental health problem. 

Mental Health Diversion

In order to address the pervasive problem of incarcerating individuals where a mental health problem may have played a role in a criminal offense, the California courts have established a mental health diversion program. 

The mental health diversion program allows people charged with certain offenses to commit a pretrial diversion program which includes treatment for their underlying mental illness. There are a number of requirements to the program, but if successfully completed, may result in a dismissal of the charges. 

It is important to speak with your attorney about your case and whether you would be eligible for mental health diversion.