A Need For Change: How Mentally Ill Can benefit from Prison Alternatives

With prison overcrowding being the center of much discussion, it is impossible to ignore an even larger problem with the Justice System. United States prisons are filled with mentally ill inmates who would be much better off in a therapeutic setting rather than a prison cell. Because of this problem, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors is taking steps to construct a new jail for mentally ill inmates.

Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey is working very hard to improve the treatment of mentally ill inmates because she understands that prisons were not built to function as mental health facilities. Prisons are not able to provide the necessary help to the huge numbers of mentally ill inmates in the prison system. Mentally ill criminals need to be placed in community or residential treatment centers that can treat the causes of the mental illness.

Last Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted 3-1 to approve $30 million of spending to design a jail that focuses only on mental health treatment. The larger goal is to completely remodel the jail system, which would cost an estimated $1.8 billion. By creating a jail for the mentally ill, Lacey is working to keep mentally ill criminals from entering the prison population entirely. Lacey is not the only person who believes that prison alternatives, for example residential treatment centers, are more appropriate for mentally ill convicts than prison.

Mental illness specialist and board member for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, attorney Joshua Newstat, takes the vital steps to keep the mentally ill out of jail. Because prisons are ill equipped to treat mental illness, Joshua Newstat "works endlessly to provide mentally ill clients with appropriate treatment programs even before official judicial proceedings are underway." "After a client commits a crime while in the middle of a mental health crisis, the last situation they should ever face is jail time" Newstat continues. If mentally ill inmates do not receive the proper treatment after committing a crime, they are likely to commit more crimes later in life due to the same mental illness.

The only way that the worsening conditions for the mentally ill will change, Newstat believes, is to "emphasize the benefits of placing the mentally ill in treatment programs rather than sending them to prison to jail unnecessarily."