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Rethinking the Interface Between Mental Illness, Criminal Justice, and Academia

by Johnson, William Wesley (2011). Criminal justice, and academia. Justice Quarterly, 29(1): 15-22.

In his 2009 Presidential Address to the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS), University of Southern Mississippi criminologist William Wesley Johnson observed that American corrections has gone through three deinstitutionalization movements: the first being probation and parole in the mid- and late-1800s, the second being community-based rehabilitation and "alternative to incarceration" programs between the 1950s and 1970s, and the third being current efforts to move mentally ill offenders from jails and prisons to community-based programming.

Johnson has also written about deinstitutionalization efforts  such as Crisis Intervention Teams, mental health courts, and diversion or discharge planning in a book, Criminalization of Mental Illness: Crisis & Opportunity for the Justice System (Carolina Academic Press, 2008), written with Risdon N. Slate, a NAMI-Florida board member.

Deinstitutionalization movements are actually broader, and probably more complex, than Johnson's three-pronged framework. It is not unreasonable, for instance, to separate the probation and parole movements, which were also early prerelease and reentry initiatives. The rehabilitation movement of the 1950s could also be separated from the "alternatives to incarceration" movement, which started in the late 1960s and continued for a few decades. Moreover, "community corrections," restorative justice, "drug court," and prisoner reentry movements have also marked out some historical territory.

What is clear is that mentally ill offenders and prisoners are viewed with some significant difference. The deinstitutionalization and transinstitutionalization of mentally ill men and women out of mental hospitals into jails and prisons has been given valuable attention, although Johnson observes that he has noticed, in speeches he has given around the country, that people are generally still surprised to learn that correctional institutions have become the new mental hospitals. Johnson is also aware, as has been noted, of efforts to counter this trend. Smartly, he lists several cautions: crisis too often drives policy and practice; new initiatives are often insufficiently funded; and well-intentioned efforts often go awry. 

Johnson is correct that "crisis drives policy," but in which direction? History suggests we'll continue to put insufficient resources into the community options that are valuable for mentally ill, as well as non-mentally ill, offenders. Academic researchers, among others, can play a valuable role in steering policymakers and others toward more fruitful sanctioning and supervision practices, but this requires great deal of determined attention, which is not evident over the current correctional landscape. With regard to the mentally ill, Johnson holds out hope for Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT). In fact, these are interesting forms of intervention, and they have undoubtedly kept at least some individuals from being jailed or otherwise incarcerated. The troubling point, however, is that academic, policymaker, and other attention given CIT, as has been the case with other community-based interventions, rarely examines its actual impact of the overincarceration of those populations which are supposedly being decarcerated or deinstitutionalized as a result of one particular intervention or another.

Posted Mon, Jun 20 2011 10:40 AM by Tracey Vessels


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