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The Mental Health Crisis
By Barbara Bergman
President's Column columns.
Anyone who has spent time working in today’s criminal justice system is well aware that our prisons and jails have become — as described by a recent Frontline documentary — our new asylums.
Forty years ago, America’s seriously mentally ill were housed in psychiatric hospitals that kept them too long and often without good cause. As those hospitals closed, a promise to provide care in communities went unfulfilled. At the same time, America’s prison capacity grew; it has quadrupled since 1980. People with untreated mental illness are often poor and homeless. Many commit petty crimes, creating arrest records that often lead to harsh sentences. Today some 250,000 Americans with mental illness live in prisons, the nation’s primary supplier of mental-health services.1
In fact, America’s prisons and jails currently contain three times more mentally ill people than do our psychiatric hospitals. Specifically, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has estimated that “there are roughly 283,000
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