Sunday, March 09, 2008

Prisons, Mental Health Policy and Incarceration Rates

At Lawyers, Guns and Money, we're reminded of this prison's extremely high incarceration rates and the resulting costs to states. The Detroit Free Press explains the cost to Michigan:
Before the nation hits two in 100 behind bars, which seems inevitable, it's time for a national debate on corrections and criminal justice policies that will lead to a more rational, humane and cost-effective system. The nation has gotten far too little for its enormous investment in locking people up. Violent crime rates are higher than they were more than three decades ago, when tough-on-crime policies, including mandatory sentencing laws, created a prison-building boom.

States can no longer afford to divert so many resources from education, health care and other pressing needs. Michigan, for example, with one of the nation's highest incarceration rates, spends $2 billion a year on corrections, or 20% of its general fund. It is one of four states spending more on corrections than higher education. In today's economy, spending more on prisons than college is a recipe for failure.
If you've been reading this weblog for a long time, you have a sense of my position on this - "... before we get "tough" on them by throwing away tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on their repeated stints behind bars, perhaps we should take a long and hard look at what we are doing and, for those cases where it isn't working, what we can and should do differently." Our nation's legislators irresponsibly toss billions of dollars at prisons without any sense of whether incarceration works, or whether there are more effective or more cost-effective alternatives.

A while back, an interesting graph was put up at the Volokh Conspiracy, illustrating our nation's prison and mental institution incarceration rates. Short of saying "correlation is causation", the illustration makes it hard to miss a connection between the closing of state-funded mental hospitals and the exploding incarceration rates in jails and prisons. I'm not arguing for reopening state mental hospitals and mass "mental health" incarceration as an alternative to prisons. But I am saying this: We had a lousy mental health policy that was followed by a paradigm shift (community-based mental health, self-determination) that was not adequately funded and supported, followed by misguided budget-slashing in states like Michigan which closed many of the state's remaining mental health facilities, followed by a willful blind eye to the fact that jails and prisons were filling up with people who were mentally ill, and otherwise untreated or given a lot less community-based support than they need.

I'll renew my call for evidence-based public policy.

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