National Public Radio recently ran a feature documenting the high costs of America’s continuous practice of locking up large numbers of people with mental disabilities.
NPR interviewed Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman, who is creating a new facility he calls a “forensic diversion facility” to provide sentencing alternatives for people with mental disabilities. Leifman describes how America’s prisons are failing people with mental disabilities by not providing resources to prevent them from reoffending.
In one particularly telling case, 97 individuals were arrested in Miami-Dade County a total of 2,200 times in a five-year period, costing tax payers more than $13 million.
“We have a criminal justice system which has a very clear purpose: You get arrested. We want justice. We try you, and justice hopefully prevails,” Leifman told Laura Sullivan, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered. “It was never built to handle people that were very, very ill, at least with mental illness.”
Conservative estimates put the number of people with mental disabilities in America’s prisons and jails at 350,000. Nationwide, more people are currently receiving mental health treatment in prisons in jails than in hospitals and treatment centers. In fact, Los Angeles County Jail, Rikers Island Jail in New York City and Cook County Jail in Illinois are the nation’s three largest inpatient psychiatric facilities in the country.
“It seems to me that we have criminalized being mentally ill,” said Sheriff Greg Hamilton of Travis County in Austin, Texas.