The proportion of people in the criminal justice system who have behavioral health needs is much higher than it is in the general public.[31] Yet few jurisdictions are able to routinely identify and track both criminal justice and health outcomes for this population. Without this critical information, it’s impossible to develop and target effective, comprehensive responses at each juncture of the criminal justice system.

Further, even though law enforcement officers and court officials are often willing to divert certain people who have behavioral health conditions from incarceration to community-based supports and services, when appropriate, they frequently lack effective options to do so. A lack of community-based behavioral health services also undermines investments in prison and jail-based treatment because gains people have made in these programs can quickly erode without continuity of care in the community. People who need supports and services often face long waiting lists and lack the financial means to pay for these services, transportation to reach them, and affordable stable housing. Additionally, the behavioral health treatment services that are delivered are frequently not coordinated between criminal justice, behavioral health, and other social services agencies, and are rarely aligned with what works to both improve health outcomes and reduce recidivism.

To help local leaders improve responses to people who have behavioral health needs in local criminal justice systems, state leaders can take the following steps:

  • Action Item 1: Improve the identification of people who have behavioral health needs in the criminal justice system.
  • Action Item 2: Ensure that a range of behavioral health treatment and service options are available within jails and prisons and in the community for people in the criminal justice system.
  • Action Item 3: Increase the effectiveness of treatment and support services to improve public safety and health outcomes.
  • Action Item 4: Strengthen collaboration between behavioral health and criminal justice agencies at the state and local level.

Public safety and behavioral health officials need to work together to improve outcomes

View the video to learn more about improving outcomes for people who have behavioral health needs in the criminal justice system

Alex M. Blandford and Fred Osher, Guidelines for the Successful Transition of People with Behavioral Health Disorders from Jail and Prison (New York: The Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2013); Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2016).