The Costs of Jailing the Mentally Ill

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

More people are being jailed for crimes they committed because of mental illness. And many of them are destined to cycle in and out of the criminal-justice system without getting the help they need because of a reduction in treatment facilities.


According to The Economist, it costs much more to jail a mentally ill person than to treat and house him or her.

On any given day in Cook County jail one building is home to between 2,000 and 2,500 people with diagnosed mental illnesses. Each night's stay costs at least $190. Costs escalate when medical care is included. The Lamp Community, a non-profit working for the mentally ill in Los Angeles, says the desperate cycle of emergency-room visits and stints in jail can exceed $100,000 a year for each homeless person. Permanent supportive housing costs only $16,000.

The history of this quiet disaster can be traced back to the 1960s, when John Kennedy decided to treat more of the mentally ill in the community and a new drug called thorazine promised to help. Over the next decade, however, new centres did not arrive and thorazine was not as good as everyone hoped. Moreover, there was a rise in legal actions against state facilities.

Pete Earley, a journalist and author of a book on the American mental-health system, says that in one year in California 19,000 beds were cut. "There was no place for anyone to go, they were literally thrown on to the street," he says. Matters deteriorated in the 1980s, when large cuts were made to housing programmes.


Read more at The Economist.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter