Justice System Inching Toward Empathy for Mentally Ill
> 8/13/2007 9:41:22 AM

Last week, Time shined its spotlight on the subject of mental illness and the criminal justice system. This is a topic that we've explored several times before, notably with the release of DOJ statistics, coverage of Florida, and with recent data that found mental health courts to hold promise. Coverage of the problem by the media on the other hand, has been, well, criminal, which makes Time's recent article so refreshing. While none of the information is new, it is well presented in a high profile space.

Time pulls no punches either, instead laying the problem bare with statistics that are hard to ignore. They write:

More Americans receive mental health treatment in prisons and jails than hospitals or treatment centers. In fact, the country's largest psychiatric facility isn't even a hospital, it's a prison New York City's Rikers Island, which holds an estimated 3,000 mentally ill inmates at any given time. Fifty years ago, the U.S. had nearly 600,000 state hospital beds for people suffering from mental illness. Today, because of federal and state funding cuts, that number has dwindled to 40,000.

Judge Steven Leifman has been a staunch advocate for change in the way that the mentally ill are handled by the criminal justice system. Leifman works in Florida, where the treatment of mentally ill inmates has been an issue in the courts, and he speaks with experience about how bad the situation has gotten.

"It's the one area in civil rights that we've gone backwards on," says Leifman, noting that nearly half of the nine floors in Miami-Dade's County Jail are mental health wards, even though the building is "more like a warehouse than a facility." He decries the conditions that these inmates face, including vermin-infested, decrepit buildings that lack adequate ventilation, lighting, and water supplies. Leifman also laments the amount of taxpayer dollars used to fund such an inadequate system. Florida taxpayers spend $100,000 each day to house the mentally ill in prison; moreover, studies show that people with mental illness stay in jail eight times longer than other inmates, at seven times the cost.

Leifman makes an excellent point that while as a society we have made so much progress in other areas, the treatment of many of our sickest members remains deplorable. This Time article however, should be seen as a sign of positive momentum. Beyond some of the legal action being taken to avert the destructive pattern of the lives of many mentally ill, the article also gives prominent play to the virtual reality simulator designed by Janssen to help police and medical responders better empathize with those having a psychotic episode. This device and the training that comes along with it can go a long way toward improving treatment of those who are genuinely sick.

This issue is not going to disappear over night, but if we do not continue to talk about it and look for solutions, it very well could get worse. Time has brought this dialogue into the main stream, but now it is time for those of us who have been engaged in this discussion to step forward and make our voices heard. The lack of humanity toward sick individuals, not to mention the wastefulness of the system, affects each of us. Solutions are emerging, and sentiments are beginning to shift, but only continued pressure will move us toward a better future.

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