How to Help: When a Person with Mental Illness Is Arrested

This handbook is designed for anyone concerned about a person with mental illness who is involved in the New York City criminal justice system. This handbook should not need to exist, because it should be very unusual for a person with mental illness to encounter the criminal justice system. Very often when mental health consumers get in trouble with the law, it is a direct result of psychiatric symptoms. When this happens, the response should be a mental health response (referral to crisis services, outreach, or hospitalization, for example), rather than a criminal justice response (filing charges, arrest, etc.).

Unfortunately, the reality is that in New York City, and nationally, enormous numbers of people with mental illness are passing through the criminal justice system, and into jails and prisons every day. A 1999 study by the federal Department of Justice found that about 16 percent of jail and prison inmates nationwide have mental illnesses. In New York City, 25 percent of all jail inmates require mental health services while incarcerated and about 15 percent have serious mental illnesses, according to the New York City Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Alcoholism Services.