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Jail Diversion Programs – The Future of Criminal Justice?


Court ordered addiction treatment programs that serve to divert non-violent criminals with mental illness and substance abuse issues have gained in popularity in recent years. Florida, and Broward County in particular, has been at the forefront of this trend. A Broward County Court Judge, Ginger Lerner-Wren, is noted for creating the first Mental Health Court in the United States. She continues to fight for the decriminalization of mental illness and advocates for an alternative to the status quo. Partly through her efforts, more states and municipalities around the country are starting to understand that while criminality must be punished, special care must be taken to represent the best interests of and treat those with debilitating behavioral disorders.

A 2006 year-end Bureau of Justice Statistics’ report estimated that well over 1 million people – incarcerated in state, federal and local jails – suffer from mental illness. Of course, many of those are also suffering from substance abuse issues that are often left undiagnosed or undertreated when they are incarcerated. And while inmates may receive healthcare while on the inside, there aren’t well-defined programs to assist them when they are released. The result is a significant recidivism rate, much higher than those who receive appropriate long-term care. Persons with mental illness and substance abuse issues simply do not have the support to cope with returning to normal life after being incarcerated. Further, the strain on the criminal justice system, both in terms of caseload and financial resources, is staggering. NAMI, The National Alliance on Mental Illness, estimates that mentally ill prisoners cost the United States over $9 billion annually.

It is imperative that local, state and federal criminal justice programs address the reality that, potentially, over 50% of all inmates are mentally ill and/or suffering from addiction disorders. While there is no magic bullet or answer to this problem, creating programs to address this significant and immediate need can, over the longer-term, begin to reverse the failures of our criminal justice system as it relates to the mentally ill.

As addiction counselors who understand the need for appropriate access to care for anyone suffering from behavioral disorders, it is imperative that we foster an environment that gives inmates the care they need and deserve, both when incarcerated and released. There is no immediate solution, but with a unified voice and by educating our healthcare peers, we can jump-start the change we need.