The death of Shannon Collins is a tragedy. This tragedy shed light on the intersection of mental health and the criminal justice system in our community.
Interestingly, much of the public discussion has not been about this intersection, but rather how to monitor the homeless. Tracking practices are not sustainable, nor do they address the root causes of homelessness. These practices criminalize the homeless. Thinking long term, failure to comply with tracking regulations will cause a swell in our jail. This is not the solution we need to create positive change. Moreover, monitoring does not address the crux of this tragedy — the need for transitional planning for people with mental health problems coming out of the justice system. This includes health care, housing, educational, and vocational assistance.
Now is the time to take pause and think calmly and strategically about how to move forward.
More than half of persons housed in the U.S. correctional system have a mental health problem. The correctional system is the number one provider of mental health services in this country. Incarcerated individuals have rates of mental illness that are two to four times greater than the general population. People with mental health needs comprise 56 percent of state, 45 percent of federal, and 64 percent of the jail populations in the United States. As 93 percent of incarcerated people return home, we need to plan for their care and
The mass incarceration of people with mental illness stems from the closing our mental health hospitals in the 1980s. The lack of foresight in planning the continuation of care for patients greatly increased our homeless population. The vast homelessness of this group raised law enforcement attention, resulting in a substantial incarceration increase. Upon release, this group is not systematically linked to housing and health care. This leads to future law enforcement attention; creating a revolving door of the justice system.
Unfortunately, millions with mental illness are reliant on homeless and jail services as these are the few public entities funded to provide care. This is a great injustice. Reducing support for the homeless not only punishes this group, it further debilitates and isolates persons with mental illness. Criminalizing the homeless and people with mental illness does not keep the community healthy and safe. It only creates a void in care and ultimately increases our jail population.
People with mental illness are usually the victims of crime, not the perpetrators. Though the person being charged with the death of Ms. Collins is suspected to have a mental illness, this is not the norm. The majority of charges for people with mental illness are nonviolent. When in custody, they are more likely to be victimized. Creating policies based on an anomaly will not make us safer. Cutting services and funding for the homeless only continues to damage our broken system.
We need sustainable solutions focused on public safety and social service provision. The mass incarceration of persons with mental illness has proven to be costly and ineffective. The criminalization of people with mental illness is a great injustice; the vast homelessness we experience in this country is unacceptable. It is our role as a community to solve these issues together, not to continue to push individuals through the revolving door of a broken system.
Bonnie Sultan is a Santa Cruz resident and an expert on mental health and the criminal justice system. She is an author and public speaker on this issue.