New Report Identifies Points to Divert Individuals with Mental Illness from Criminal Justice System


NCSL press release

Los Angeles—In 44 states, a prison or jail holds more individuals with mental illness than the state's largest psychiatric hospital. Rates of serious mental illness in jails are four to six times higher than in the general population. Those are among the findings of  a new report released by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) during its annual Legislative Summit.

The report, “The Legislative Primer Series for Front End Justice: Mental Health,” examines six points which state lawmakers can support diverting appropriate individuals with mental illness away from the criminal justice system entirely.

This report also identifies correctional interventions for those for whom community-based services are not appropriate. These interventions can hold offenders accountable while also connecting them to treatment and services that are designed to reduce recidivism.

The report recommends the following actions:

  • Funding for community-based mental health services such as crisis stabilization units designed to reroute individuals prior to entry justice system. 
  • Codifying specialized training requirements for law enforcement on how to respond to mental health, substance use and behavioral disorder issues.
  • Supporting law enforcement and prosecutor-led pretrial diversion programs that allow charges to be dropped after successful completion of treatment or other required conditions.
  • Authorizing mental health or other specialty courts as an alternative to jail that involve intensive supervision and treatment requirements as ordered by the court.
  • Creating screening and assessment tools that help to link offenders to treatment, employment services, medical assistance and other essential needs as part of jail discharge procedures.
  • Individualizing supervision rules so probationers with behavioral health disorders can establish a stabile living environment rather than being sent to jail for breaking rules such as inability to have a landline telephone.

NCSL would like to acknowledge the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of the Safety and Justice Challenge for their assistance in this report.

Read a full copy of the report.


NCSL is a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the states, commonwealths and territories. It provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues and is an effective and respected advocate for the interests of the states in the American federal system.