Justice is among the cornerstones of the United States democratic system; however, today, the criminal justice system is challenged by increasingly complex and multi-dimensional issues, ranging from human trafficking to terrorism. Professionals working within the criminal justice system have to confront these issues on a daily basis and work to prevent crime, protect society against risks, and improve safety by understanding and resolving the challenges that arise. Mental illness as a risk factor for crime is among the contemporary criminal justice issues that remain to be resolved. There is still a lack of action involved in encouraging individuals with mental illness to seek help before they find themselves in trouble with the law. Moreover, there is a problem of mentally ill individuals being detained in jails and prisons where their psychological health needs remain unmet. Addressing this problem within the criminal justice system is a great challenge that requires the collaboration between criminologists, law enforcement officers, policymakers, and mental health providers.
Summary of the Issue
While people with mental health challenges are more often the victims of violence rather than perpetrators, some types of mental disorders increase the risks of individuals becoming more violent compared to the general population (Thornicroft, 2020). It has been noted that the direct connection between mental health and violent crime is a misconception; higher offending has been associated with individuals struggling with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (Thornicroft, 2020). The rates of offending are moderately higher in contrast to the general population, but there is a notable caveat. Specifically, persons with triple morbidity, such as severe mental illness, antisocial personality disorder, and substance abuse disorder, are significantly more likely to exhibit violence compared with people with severe mental illness alone (Thornicroft, 2020).
Moreover, research showed that individuals with mental illness could be prone to crime and violence when they do not receive adequate treatment, experience delusions, and have a history of long-term paranoia (Ghiasi, Azhar, & Singh, 2020). Individuals with such symptoms are often influenced by the adversity of their psychiatric illness, for example, command hallucinations. Other contributing factors contributing to increased violence besides the mentioned ones include unemployment, homelessness, as well as secondary effects of mental illness such as, for example, cognitive impairment (Ghiasi et al., 2020). Despite awareness of the risk factors in mental health that contribute to violent offending, persons with psychological challenges remain untreated within the criminal justice system.
Why Mental Health is an Issue in the Criminal Justice Issue
The statistics on imprisoned offenders state that there is around 43% of people in state prisons diagnosed with a mental health disorder and 44% in locally-managed jails (Prison Policy Initiative, 2022). One in four people in jails has reported experiencing “serious psychological distress,” while 66% have mentioned not receiving any mental health care (Prison Policy Initiative, 2022). Moreover, the adverse psychological effect of prison takes their toll on individuals, resulting in anxiety, post-traumatic stress, impaired decision-making, and other issues.
A contributing factor to the imprisonment of mentally ill individuals is the false equivocation of psychiatric illness and criminality. Society has largely viewed behavior and conduct issues as psychological disorder symptoms, which has resulted in the wrong perception of the public that psychiatric illness is equated to criminality. Besides, high levels of reported mental illness among the jail and prison population have occurred due to false labeling. People with psychological challenges are arrested and sent to prisons and jails in disproportionate numbers, which happens predominantly due to the lack of awareness and the resources available for dealing with such individuals (Ghiasi et al., 2020). Law enforcement has been shown to arrest individuals with mental health issues for petty crimes as a preventive measure of law and order. This leads to the more significant numbers of mentally ill prisoners within the system.
Another issue of concern is the closing of psychiatric facilities, which started with the 1960s deinstitutionalization, which forced many psychiatric patients onto the streets. As a consequence, patients who came into increased contact with the police found themselves in court. The problem has worsened because of the lack of training and staffing within the criminal justice system, thus potentially increasing the number of mentally ill persons in the prison population (Al-Rousan et al., 2017). It has been noted that despite some psychiatric illnesses and behaviors being linked to criminal behavior, there was an overall false perception of a causal relationship between criminality and mental health challenges.
Criminal Theory – Labeling Theory
Due to the lack of awareness of the needs of mental health individuals and the misconception that mental health issues inevitably lead to crime, the considerations of the labeling theory apply. Labeling theory is an approach to studying social deviance focusing on the ways in which social control agents attach stigmatizing stereotypes to specific groups, which leads to the stigmatized groups changing their behaviors once they are labeled as deviant. The theory stems from Becker’s idea that deviance is a result of external opinions and judgments (labels), which impact an individual’s self-concept and the way others respond to the labeled person.
Thus, stigma and discrimination are at the roots of the labeling theory. Notably, lower-class individuals, minority groups, and those that are stigmatized are more likely to be involved with law enforcement and thus more likely to get arrested and jailed or imprisoned, depending on the nature and the severity of their offense. Once arrested, the stigmatized individuals get more severe sentences regardless of the seriousness of their crimes. Consequently, they are more likely to be labeled as criminals than others, with members of such groups being likely to be seen by others as linked to criminality and deviance (Berk, 2015).
Both macro and micro components apply to the labeling theory because it considers both the broader societal perception of deviance as linked to individuals from particular groups and the narrower response of individuals to the misconceptions and stereotypes. While labeling occurs at the social level, the consequences of labeling take place on the individual level, subsequently influencing behavior, self-identity, as well as inclination to deviance (Berk, 2015). The importance of the labeling theory to the current discussion of mental health and criminality is illustrated in its view of social life as fluid and reality as socially constructed. Moreover, the theory focused on social processes rather than social structures put in place of stricter determinism characteristics of positivist approaches.
The chosen theory is applicable to considerations of the links between mental health illness and crime because of the relevance of social stigmatization in both. As mentioned previously, people with both mental health issues and criminal history will experience dual stigma (Termeer & Szeto, 2021). Such stigma covers several components, such as the use of a label, stereotyping and discrimination, status loss, as well as the “us” versus “them” separation (Termeer & Szeto, 2021). Notably, there is a problem of structural discrimination against individuals with mental illness prone to criminal behavior, which is illustrated in the form of lacking funding and resources aimed at research and caring for those with stigmatized psychological issues. In this case, a person with mental illness may not be directly discriminated against but are the recipient of longstanding discrimination through the established societal structures.
The issue of the overrepresentation of mental illness within the criminal justice system is a matter of not only links of some disorders to increased risks of offending and violent behavior but also due to stigmatization of the mentally ill and the misconception that their state is the sole explanation for deviant behaviors. The deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities has encouraged more individuals with psychological illnesses to find themselves in trouble with law enforcement. However, instead of treating their conditions and meeting their needs, the system has automatically deemed them as violent, causing an influx of mentally ill inmates in jails and prisons. The exploration of the issue from the labeling theory showed that the discrimination and stigmatization of mentally ill individuals as potentially violent is a systemic issue that requires a comprehensive solution. Mental illness alone may be a risk factor in offending, but it is not always the case, which means that people struggling with psychological issues require their needs addressed first in order to prevent them from getting involved in the criminal justice system. Overall, there remain a lot of misconceptions regarding mental health and criminality, which calls for the reconsideration of the systematic approach toward mental illness and its connection to criminal behaviors.
Al-Rousan, T., Rubenstein, L., Sieleni, B., Deol, H., & Wallace, R. (2017). Inside the nation’s largest mental health institution: A prevalence study in a state prison system. BMC Public Health, 17.
Berk, B. (2015). Labeling theory, history of. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International encyclopedia of the social & behavioral sciences (2nd ed., vol. 13) (pp. 150-155). Elsevier.
Ghiasi, N., Azhar, Y., & Singh, J. (2022). Psychiatric illness and criminality. StatPearls Publishing.
Prison Policy Initiative. (2022). Mental health: Policies and practices surrounding mental health.
Thornicroft, G. (2020). People with severe mental illness as the perpetrators and victims of violence: Time for a new public health approach. The Lancet 5(2), 72-73.