Finding Solutions to Mass Incarceration in America Must Be Recovery-Focused

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Last week, the graduate course I teach on therapeutic justice and leading criminal justice reform ended. It is an interdisciplinary course, centered on therapeutic justice and behavioral health strategies and programs that prevent incarceration. It is also a course that traces the historical roots of social injustice of the trend of criminalization of people with serious mental illness. Ironically, the end of the semester coincided with the Brennan Center's announcement of a national policy shift in America and release of "Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice."

As noted in the foreword to The Brennan Center for Justice compilation of essays, former President Bill Clinton remarks:

In this time of increased political polarization, there is one area we have a genuine chance at bipartisan cooperation: the over-imprisonment of people who did not commit serious crime. The drop in violence and crime in America has been an extraordinary national achievement. But plainly, our nation has too many people in prison and for too long -- we have overshot the mark. With just 5 percent of the world's population, we now have 25 percent of its prison population, and an emerging bipartisan consensus now understands the need to do better.

The criminalization of persons with serious mental illness and co-occurring disorders tells a related but somewhat different story of failed tough-on-crime policies, such as the war on drugs and legislative sentencing mandates. It tells the historical evolution of a medical illness so misunderstood and mythologized by centuries of social stigma, institutionalization, segregation and discrimination. Add to this a mental health treatment system that historically relied upon coercion, seclusion and restraint as part of its treatment milieu. As a former disability rights attorney, it is not an easy story to tell or to witness, never mind experience.

As pioneer of the nation's first Mental Health Court in the U.S., I have written extensively about battling the criminalization of persons with mental illness as a matter of social justice. A court innovation which turns 18 years old next month. A court which day after day helps individuals navigate critically scarce community resource -- over jail. The court has never been defined as a panacea or a preferred mental health criminal justice policy. This court promotes access to community based behavioral health for the simple reason that treatment works, if you are willing to manage your health.

One cannot deny the failed governmental policy of the war on drugs, or poverty and the intersection of institutional bias and race. This narrative, in my view, fails to tell the complete story of mass incarceration in America. It neglects to include the systematic and historic failure of the justice system to provide equality under the law for people with serious mental illness in America. (See, Perlin, M., "Sanism and the Law") If our national leaders are serious about finding real solutions to mass incarceration in America, then we must tell the real story. This is not simply a matter of truth and respect for major advances in psychiatric rehabilitation -- it is necessary as matter of justice.