A homeless man was killed by police in Los Angeles on March 2, 2015. The man who was shot “had been living in a tent in skid row for a few months after spending a long stretch in a mental health facility,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Though situations like this don’t always end in death, they happen every day.
People with mental illness who cannot afford treatment often end up on the streets. Their behaviors can be interpreted by others as intimidating or dangerous, and the cops are called, often unprepared to deal with a mental health crisis.
Even when these encounters don’t become deadly, they perpetuate a cycle of arrest, incarceration and release, where the underlying mental health issues are never addressed, and incidents with police are doomed to continue.
That’s what’s driving Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 56% of incarcerated individuals in state prison and 64% of those in local jails have symptoms of, or a recent history of, a mental health issue. That’s a lot of people. In fact, it’s ten times more people with mental illness behind bars than are in psychiatric hospitals.
What if I told you there were ten times more people with cancer being treated in prisons than in hospitals? Or diabetes? Or heart disease? And when they were released, the treatment ended, prescriptions stopped, and people were more or less left on their own, many returning to homelessness. You’d be concerned that those health issues would never be addressed, causing severe consequences.
Yet, that is how our criminal justice system treats mental illness. Though a person with mental illness may ostensibly be arrested for harassment or public urination or burglary or drug possession, that’s not really why he or she is in jail. It’s because when we see small crimes like that committed, all we see is an offense. Instead, if we looked at those actions as symptoms, instead of crimes, our response would be therapeutic not punitive. If a man were lying on the ground having a heart attack, we wouldn’t want him arrested for trespassing, we’d want him to have help.
Better training for police forces can help, as places like San Antonio have shown. New York City has announced a massive $130 million in investment in mental health treatment and alternatives to incarceration. According to the New York Times, “the changes include tripling the size of both pretrial diversion programs and the amount of resources devoted to easing the transition from jail back into society. This would represent a significantly different approach to criminal justice in the city.”
Cities from Seattle, Washington to Salt Lake City, Utah, and even Los Angeles, California have announced or implemented new programs aimed at tackling the intertwining problems of homelessness, the criminal justice system and mental illness or substance abuse. We need to monitor these innovations, study their effectiveness and build on what we learn.
But new and expanded programs are not enough on their own. We, as a society, are quick to dismiss and disparage the people we see on the street who are clearly experiencing mental health symptoms or crises. We call those people “crazy” and “wacko”, making it all too easy to ignore their arrests and forget about their incarcerations. We have to fundamentally change our view. The next time you run across someone having a mental health crisis on the street, think to yourself: if this person were having a heart attack, would I call the police?