The Over-Representation of Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorders in the Criminal Justice System

Inmates with mental illnesses and/or substance use disorders are significantly over-represented in the criminal justice system. Read on to learn more about why this is occurring, and how the County of Yavapai Justice and Mental Health Coalition aims to help.

A Complex Combination of Social Issues

The Bureau of Justice Statistics[1]  estimates that between 25%–40% of inmates within the United States justice system have a mental illness, with 60%–80% of them having a co-occurring substance use disorder. In order to understand why there are so many inmates with mental illnesses and/or substance use disorders, it’s important to understand the challenges they face within the larger community such as the social determinants of health, their access to resources, and more.

The social determinants of health refer to the social and economic factors which influence the health of individuals and their larger community. These factors include income, access to social support systems, education level, living conditions, and so much more. Many of these social issues are directly related to mental illness and substance use disorders. And although these social issues do not directly cause criminal behavior, they significantly increase the likelihood that an individual will be involved in the criminal justice system. Therefore, addressing the overrepresentation of mental illness and substance use disorders in the criminal justice system requires a community-led approach to reduce the contributing social and economic factors.

Additional Challenges Within the Criminal Justice System

Once incarcerated, inmates with mental illnesses or substance use disorders face additional challenges that further entrench them within the criminal justice system. Many inmates with mental illnesses are incarcerated for longer, and have more conflicts with other inmates/correctional staff. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, approximately 50% of inmates in the United States have a substance use disorder, but many of them do not receive proper treatment. Inmates with mental illnesses and/or substance use disorders also often have a higher rate of recidivism post-incarceration.

What We’re Doing To Help

We know that addressing complex social issues requires a collaborative effort. The County of Yavapai Justice and Mental Health Coalition brings together community leaders and stakeholders from multiple systems, including mental health, substance abuse, law enforcement, housing services, and more. 

Our goal is to provide inmates with mental illnesses and/or substance use disorders with appropriate treatment, as well as improve their access to recovery support, housing, and employment services to decrease recidivism. Visit our website to learn more.