The Carceral System and Mental Health/Substance Use Disorders

We must stop using jail as a substitute for care.

Mental health and substance use treatment has been shown time and again to prevent crime and reduce recidivism, yet in 2023, the primary public system utilized to address mental illness are not hospitals but jails. This perpetuates violence in communities and forces people to become entangled unnecessarily in the criminal legal system. As a public safety measure, it is urgent that localities pivot to a focus on providing adequate healthcare and treatment to people who need it and shrinking the footprint of the criminal legal system.

In the U.S., in spite of a strong public consensus that mental illness is a health concern best addressed via medical intervention, a person struggling with a severe mental illness is three times more likely to end up imprisoned than to receive care in a mental health facility. Mental health problems and substance use disorders (SUDs) interact with the criminal legal system in a vicious cycle. People navigating mental illness or SUDs are criminalized, and, once in the carceral system, deprived of adequate treatment and exposed to conditions which exacerbate their illness. The cycle becomes harder to break the longer it goes on, as lack of care and increased trauma create a vicious cycle of arrest and re-arrest.

By approaching mental illness and SUDs with an arrest-and-incarcerate model as opposed to a health- or community-based one, we make it impossible for people to achieve well-being and stability, thus harming individuals, their families, and public safety more broadly.

To read our full report, download the PDF below.

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