Imprison the Mentally Ill

I was having a discussion with a client who was creating a program to assist the homeless. Now, I have a particular view about the homeless, because my brother is responsible for helping many of the homeless in Washington D.C. Even with plenty of services, shelters, food, clothing and training offered to support them, you still see them sleeping in alleyways and panhandling on the street corners, or holding Will Work for Food signs at intersections.

Having the privilege of serving the State of Washington for over a decade in law enforcement (2 years in juvenile) I am (as well as all the other multitudes who support the law enforcement community are) aware that an uncomfortably large percentage of the criminal population consists of individuals with mental health issues, placing an inordinate strain on the legal system.


The mentally ill, who do not have access to the necessary treatment and/or medications overpopulate the jails and prisons, as well as probation and parole systems, also contributing to the homeless population.

Though it may sound Hitleristic, we here in the United States forcibly sterilized over 30,000 mentally ill patients in the first 40 years of the 1900’s while they were incarcerated or in State mental hospitals as an approach to decreasing mental health issues over time.

Prior to 1960 just under 600,000 mentally ill patients were able to find the help they needed at State run mental hospitals. Over the next 40 years, State mental hospitals had kicked over 500,000 mentally ill patients to the curb. Now the legal system is left as the only available resource to deal with nearly 1 million sufferers of mental illness, basically criminalizing them for their respective conditions.

There exist many programs to assist the homeless… Why hasn’t it occurred to someone that the segment that is the most neglected – having access to the least amount of service or support – is not the homeless (though their numbers are often counted here), but the mentally ill?

In my opinion the crime is not mental illness, even though we prosecute, house and feed them in our jails and prisons, as they accumulate a rap sheet a mile long. No, the crime is forcing individuals with mental health issues to acclimate to the revolving door of our criminal justice system.

I am not convinced that having the State pick up the bill and expand their mental hospital services and facilities is the answer. I believe society has turned its back on those unable to adequately deal with their mental health issues and has forced them to be lumped in with the criminal element and I believe it is up to us to find – and provide – a solution to this growing problem.

There is indication that without a lengthy criminal history and institutionalization, that many of these suffering from lack of mental health treatment could become productive members of society if afforded the opportunity to engage in treatment and proper therapeutic intervention.

Yes, this would be an expensive undertaking, though I believe privatizing the care and treatment would be a more cost effective alternative than wasting 110-times as much by allowing State or Federal bureaucracies to deal with the problem.

I believe we – you and I – as well as our organizations, non-profits and churches could deal with this problem, creating an effective alternative for those dealing with mental health issues as an alternative to imprisonment, just as we are making progress with the issues of homelessness.

What do you think?