Reconceptualizing Criminal Justice Reform For Offenders With Serious Mental Illness

59 Pages Posted: 1 Oct 2018 Last revised: 2 Oct 2018

E. Lea Johnston

University of Florida - Levin College of Law

Date Written: September 19, 2018

Abstract

Roughly 14% of male inmates and 31% of female inmates suffer from one or more serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder. Policymakers and the public widely ascribe the overrepresentation of offenders with serious mental illness in the justice system to the “criminalization” of the symptoms of this afflicted population. The criminalization theory posits that the criminal justice system has served as the primary agent of social control over symptomatic individuals since the closure of state psychiatric hospitals in the 1950s and the tightening of civil commitment laws. The theory identifies untreated mental illness as the origin of individuals’ criminal justice involvement and mental health treatment as the clear solution to breaking their cycle of recidivism. This article evaluates the three main bodies of evidence offered in support of the criminalization theory: individuals’ movement from psychiatric hospitals to jails and prisons (“transinstitutionalization”), the heightened policing of individuals with serious mental illness, and the science linking mental illness and crime. This evaluation reveals that the criminalization theory—the understanding that animates most current policies aimed at offenders with serious mental illness—largely rests on intuitive assumptions that are often unverified and sometimes false.

A growing body of behavioral sciences literature constructs an alternative account of the relationship between mental illness and crime. Coined the “normalization theory,” it relies upon decades of research that demonstrate that clinical factors, such as diagnosis and treatment history, are not predictive of criminal activity. Instead, the same risks and needs that motivate individuals without mental illness also drive those with mental disorders to commit crimes. These “criminogenic risks” include, among others, substance abuse, employment instability, family problems, and poorly structured leisure time. Behavioral science researchers reject the premise that individuals with serious mental illness are overrepresented in the justice system because these individuals’ illnesses directly lead to criminal behavior. Instead, they theorize that serious mental illnesses fuel the greater accumulation and concentration of typical criminogenic risk factors. This recognition holds dramatic potential for the redesign of criminal justice programs. Programs that target the criminal behavior of offenders with mental illness should principally focus on addressing criminogenic risk factors that can be mitigated. Officials should also address mental health needs, but only to the extent necessary to facilitate a better criminogenic risk profile and fulfill constitutional obligations. Moreover, correctional experience suggests that institutions should allocate scarce programmatic resources according to offenders’ risk of reoffending and potential to achieve programmatic goals. These insights, which federal agencies are beginning to recognize, hold radical implications for the redesign—and possibly the existence—of jail diversion, mental health courts, specialized probation and parole, and reentry programs for offenders with serious mental illness.

Keywords: criminalization theory, criminal justice, mental health

Suggested Citation

Johnston, E. Lea, Reconceptualizing Criminal Justice Reform For Offenders With Serious Mental Illness (September 19, 2018). Florida Law Review, Vol. 71, 2019. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3252203

E. Lea Johnston (Contact Author)

University of Florida - Levin College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 117625
Gainesville, FL 32611-7625
United States

Register to save articles to
your library

Register

Paper statistics

Downloads
36
Abstract Views
107
PlumX