[12/27/16] People with Mental Illnesses Among Those ‘Unnecessarily Incarcerated’

Posted in Feature, Law Enforcement

PORTLAND, Ore. – Nearly 40 percent of people are behind bars for no compelling public safety reason, according to a new report. The Brennan Center for Justice report, How Many Americans are Unnecessarily Incarcerated? looks at state and federal prison populations, and suggests numbers could be drastically cut without endangering the public.

Fifty-four percent of the nearly 1.5 million Americans in prison are there for nonviolent offenses. Just as striking is that 79 percent of prisoners suffer either from drug addiction or mental illnesses.

Bob Joondeph, executive director of Disability Rights Oregon, said prisons actually are counter-therapeutic for people with mental illnesses.

“They tend to be isolated a lot because of behavioral problems, which even makes their illness worse,” he explained. “And prisons and jails just aren’t funded and structured to provide the types of services that those folks need.”

According to the Oregon Department of Corrections, there are nearly 15,000 people in Oregon state prisons. The state has one federal prison with a population of 1,350.

The report details the ways in which states and the federal government could decrease the prison population. It proposes decreasing the number of incarcerated to fewer than 900,000 and at the same time increasing the percent of inmates in prison for violent offenses.

Senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, said many states have already succeeded in reducing the prison population by expanding the use of probation, drug treatment and re-entry programs.

“Twenty-seven states in the past decade have reduced both crime and incarceration,” Eisen said. “So, that’s a pretty striking statistic indicating that we don’t need these massive prison populations to keep our country safe.”

Joondeph said Oregon knows what it needs to do to divert people with mental illnesses from prison. He said having more people on the Oregon Health Plan has been a really important step …

“But we need to grow our mental health services,” he said. “We absolutely need to have more housing. Having people on the streets is not only morally offensive but it just doesn’t ultimately pan out in terms of use of public resources.”