Press Releases

Stop Criminalizing Mental Illness

U.S. House Of Representatives Judiciary Subcommittee On Crime September 21, 2000

Laurie Flynn, Executive Director National Alliance for the Mentally Ill

Sep 21 2000

Risdon Slate is president of NAMI-Polk County (Florida) and a professor of criminology at Florida Southern College. He is a former United States probation officer and state corrections administrator. He also has bipolar disorder (manic depression), a biochemical brain imbalance that causes severe mood swings, from manic episodes to suicidal depressions.

Risdon's illness can be treated successfully with medication. But several years ago, one doctor took him off medication. His condition quickly deteriorated. During a manic episode, police were called. Risdon was taken to the county jail and put in a holding cell with other detainees. Because of bizarre behavior caused by his illness, he was assaulted first by another prisoner, then by corrections officers. He then was isolated in a strip cell.

Risdon's wife pleaded that he was seriously ill and needed medical treatment. Finally, a federal probation officer with whom Risdon once had worked intervened. Flashing his badge, he was able to get Risdon released and took him to a hospital. He probably saved his life. Back on medication, Risdon's condition stabilized.

Today, Risdon Slate is testifying before Congress. His testimony will serve as a reminder that mental illness can happen to anyone. No one is immune. Credentials or status do not matter, and no one can be protected from a criminal justice system that is ill-prepared and overburdened to address cases that involve mental illness.

NAMI is grateful to U.S. Representative Bill McCollum (R-FL) for holding the first Congressional hearing on the criminalization of mental illness. It is a tragedy of national proportions and represents a crisis of both the criminal justice system and our broader mental healthcare system. It is a trend that is expensive, ineffective and inhumane. It also is unfair to police and corrections officers who often serve as the nation's front-line psychiatric workers, but without appropriate training or support.

Eighteen months ago, the Department of Justice released its report that more than a quarter of a million people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other severe mental illnesses languish in the nation's prisons and jails-nearly six times the numbers in hospitals. Most people with mental illnesses who become incarcerated are not hard-core criminals. Most have committed minor, non-violent offenses caused by the symptoms of untreated illness. Many are homeless.

The Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health has helped Americans to recognize that mental illnesses are biologically-based. Treatment works-but only if you can get it. For schizophrenia, the success rate is 60 percent; for bipolar disorder, 80 percent. Both are higher than the rate for treatment of heart disease. But throwing people in jail isn't part of the treatment plan.

Today's hearing witnesses include the president of the Los Angeles County Police Chiefs; the chief prosecutor of Multnomah County, Oregon; a judge from Kings County Superior Court in Washington; and other state and local officials. They will describe the dimensions of the problem. They also will suggest solutions, such as specialized crisis intervention teams (CIT) for police and mental health courts (MHC).

Legislation is pending in the Senate and House to support such initiatives. Today's hearing will not focus on specific bills, but it will provide a foundation for future, bipartisan action. Every candidate running for public office in this election year, at the federal, state or local level, might do well to listen. A national crisis exists. It demands national solutions. And the best solutions involve treatment for the people who need it, as an investment in the health, safety, welfare and productivity of our nation.