People with serious mental disorders (SMI) are incarcerated at rates that are higher than their representation in the actual population. This is a result of deinstitutionalization and order-maintenance policing (as mentioned in the previous blog post). With high numbers of individuals with SMI in prisons, reentry can be a daunting issue. About two thirds of offenders released from jails and prisons will recidivate; this rate is much higher when examining just offenders with SMI. Former President George W. Bush referenced the issue is his 2004 State of the Union, saying “[People with SMI that] can’t find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit crime and return to prison. . . . America is the land of second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.”
Lawmakers have been making strides to improve reentry programs for both adult and juvenile offenders with mental illnesses. The Second Chance Act of 2007 expanded services for the 600,000 offenders that are released yearly by providing employment services, substance abuse treatments, counseling, and mentor programs. Despite these new laws, old problems still persist. According to a study of a state prison in Texas, offenders with SMI as well as substance abuse problems have a much more difficult time with reentry. This means that rehabilitation after incarceration is key to a successful reentry. Women especially require special services for reentry because female offenders are more likely to have mental illnesses or substance abuse problems.
In recent history, repeat offenders have been dealt with through harsher sentencing, however many researchers have found rehabilitative approaches could be more effective. Harsher sentencing laws mean that there are fewer reentry services provided to offenders that are about to be released and many chose not to take advantage of what little there is available to them. Individuals with untreated mental illness, addictions, and limited coping skills will have a more difficult time finding a home and employment after release. Drug rehabilitation and halfway housing programs are proven to be effective in reducing recidivism. Programs like these have been developed and enacted all over the U.S., however it is important that they be expanded. Another improvement could be making these services and programs not only more accessible but also incentivizing them for inmates with SMI. Equipping individuals, young and old, with mental illnesses with the skills they need for reentry into their communities could seriously reduce the population in state prisons and jails nationwide.
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