WASHINGTON — The prevalence of serious mental illness among female jail inmates is twice the rate of that among male inmates, according to a two-phase study that screened more than 21,000 adult offenders entering five local jails in New York and Maryland.
More than 30 percent of female inmates suffer from at least one serious mental health disorder, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression, compared to 15 percent of male inmates, according to researchers at the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
The pronounced gender difference in the prevalence of mental illness is particularly important given the rising number and proportion of female inmates in U.S. jails, according to the study.
The number of adult males (approximately 673,700) and adult females (approximately 100,000) held in local jails increased 24 percent and 42 percent, respectively, from 2000 to 2007, according to the study.
There were 13 million admissions to local jails in the United States during the 12 months ending midyear 2007 and the findings provide evidence that the number of inmates entering jails with serious mental illnesses is substantial.
An estimated 2 million offenders with serious mental health conditions are booked into U.S. jails each year, according to the study.
The prevalence of serious mental illness in the jail population is three to six times that found among average Americans, according to the study published in the journal Psychiatric Services.
The findings highlight the challenges jail officials face in addressing the needs of offenders with mental illness. The study calls for a clearer explication of the factors contributing to the substantial presence in jails of individuals with mental illness and a discussion of appropriate responses.
“Our criminal justice system was never intended to be the safety net for the public mental health system,” says Judge Steven Leifman, special advisor on criminal justice and mental health for the Supreme Court of Florida.
“Unfortunately though, that is exactly what it has become.”
There is no mandatory standardized screening process for mental illness during booking at U.S. jails and the study recommends the development of better screening tools in jails and continued federal funding for mental health treatment and services.
“All too often, people with mental illness find themselves in a revolving door between the criminal justice system and the streets of our communities, committing a series of minor offenses,” says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The alarming results of this study confirm a pressing need to confront the unique challenges posed by mentally ill offenders.”
Leahy, also a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, led efforts to reauthorize and fully fund the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act in 2008. MIOTCRA authorizes federal funding to help state and local governments create and expand mental health courts, treatment services and support, and law enforcement training programs.
Researchers used structured clinical interviews to determine the presence of mental illnesses in a sample of adults screened during the jail booking process. Screening data were obtained for 11,168 males and females entering five local jails in Maryland and New York between May 2002 and January 2003, and 10,240 males and females between November 2005 and June 2006.
The Council of State Governments Justice Center, in partnership with Policy Research Associates, developed the screening instrument for mental illness and conducted the five-site study, with initial funding from the National Institute of Justice. The National Institute of Corrections funded completion of the study.