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The subject of mental illness and crime is significant in many ways. Mental illness is pervasive in all aspects of the criminal justice system, from offenders to victims. It impacts each segment of the criminal justice system in many ways, from monetary issues to personnel training and interagency collaboration. It is a problem that requires a multifaceted approach to finding solutions. These solutions are generally community-specific and agency resource-dependent, requiring innovative initiatives and leaders.

Statistics and Intervention

Criminal justice systems face significant challenges in addressing the mental health needs of the people they serve. According to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), more than half of those incarcerated in the United States have mental health issues. These individuals are more likely to have previous convictions and to serve a lengthier sentence than those who do not have mental health needs. Without treatment, mental health conditions can linger or worsen, increasing the likelihood of further involvement in the justice system. To achieve better results for both systems and individuals, legislators are considering and enacting policies to enhance access to mental health services at multiple stages in the criminal justice system.

Mental Illness and Victimization

People with mental illness are much more often the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. However, people with mental illness are more likely to be victimized than the general population—on average 11.8 times more often for violent crimes. Results from a national cohort study of more than 2 million people in Denmark showed that onset of mental illness was associated with heightened risk for exposure to violent and nonviolent crimes across multiple diagnostic categories. Additionally, stigma and discrimination are common barriers to reporting crime. Many victims with mental disorders fear they are perceived as not being credible because they suffer from delusions. They fear this is thought to impair their ability to recount events accurately.


In today’s media reports about mental illness, there is a tendency to emphasize a supposed link between violence and mental illness. News stories regularly suggest that there is a strong connection between mental illness and crime. But the majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses. As stated earlier, people with a mental illness are more likely to be the victims, rather than the perpetrators of violence. However, re-shaping beliefs is not an easy task. But it is important to correct the misleading information about this issue because it leads to intolerance and negatively impacts the lives of people with mental illness and our society as a whole. Learning the facts about violence and mental illness is an important first step in building realistic attitudes about this complex issue.

What To Do

The future that we will help to build must be of a different reality. It must be one that is centric to human rights, pragmatism, empathy, and universal vitality. The harmful disregard for the mentally ill in America is ongoing. We must not push it to the side and pretend as though it is over or is inconsequential. Education about this issue is where we must start. Carry that knowledge into fighting the stigma of mental illness, advocating against mass incarceration, for the right to health care, and for appropriate institutions for treating vulnerable populations.

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