Many people with mental illness and addiction don’t belong in America’s jails

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Image courtesy of The Laura and John Arnold Foundation

By Berly Laycox

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation released a report, “Modern Justice: Using Data to Reinvent America’s Crisis Response Systems”, written by Lynn Overmann, Angela LaScala-Gruenewald, and Ashley Winstead, that explores the consequences of individuals with complex health needs being admitted to jail instead of medical care.

Authors of the report found that locking up individuals who are frequently admitted to the hospital often makes their root issues worse, while producing no improvement in public safety. “Even a short amount of time behind bars can cause someone to lose their job, home, and even custody of their children. The harmful effects of incarceration are compounded for someone with mental illness or addiction,” the report states.

Two factors, listed in the report, that contributed to individuals receiving jail time and excessive hospitalization were:

  1. Lack of understanding how to connect these individuals to effective care, and
  2. Lack of overall options.


“Many communities have only two places to send someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis: to a hospital or to jail. These are two of the most expensive options, and neither is well equipped to provide the kind of comprehensive care and long-term follow-up people need to achieve a stable recovery,” write the authors.

Camden Coalition’s model was highlighted as a better way to respond to people experiencing high hospital utilization. The report captured the Coalition’s work with Charlie, a 58-year old resident of Camden who had struggled with addiction and working hard to stabilize his health. Like many individuals who have been imprisoned, upon release Charlie struggled to find stable housing, which negatively contributed to his health conditions. Camden Coalition’s model has helped Charlie connect to the legal, social, and medical supports he needs during this transition.

“Although we can’t point to the exact solution yet, we do know that it will involve long-term care that can address multiple, complex needs at the same time,” state the authors of the report.

This report was produced as part of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation Data-Driven Justice project. Read more about Charlie and the full report here.

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