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Jailing People With Mental Illness

In a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than get medical help. As a result, 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year. Nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition.

The vast majority of the individuals are not violent criminals—most people in jails are have not yet gone to trial, so they are not yet convicted of a crime. The rest are serving short sentences for minor crimes.

Once in jail, many individuals don’t receive the treatment they need and end up getting worse, not better. They stay longer than their counterparts without mental illness. They are at risk of victimization and often their mental health conditions get worse.

After leaving jail, many no longer have access to needed healthcare and benefits. A criminal record often makes it hard for individuals to get a job or housing. Many individuals, especially without access to mental health services and supports, wind up homeless, in emergency rooms and often re-arrested. At least 83% of jail inmates with a mental illness did not have access to needed treatment.

Jailing people with mental illness creates huge burdens on law enforcement, corrections and state and local budgets. It does not protect public safety. And people who could be helped are being ignored.

Where NAMI Stands

Helping people get out of jail and into treatment is a top priority for us. NAMI believes that everyone should have access to a full array of mental health services and supports in their communities to help prevent interactions with police. These supports should include treatment for drug and alcohol use conditions, and supports like housing, education, supported employment and peer and family support.

If individuals do come to the attention of law enforcement, communities should create options to divert them to treatment and services—before arrest, after arrest and at all points in the justice system. When individuals are in jail, they should have access to needed medication and support, should be signed up for health coverage if possible and should get help planning their release to ensure they get back on track.

What NAMI Is Doing

Support To Families

NAMI’s Helpline responds to more calls from worried families about a loved one in jail than any other issue. We provide resources and referrals to legal services.

Please download this helpful guide: When a Person with Mental Illness Goes to Prison

NAMI believes that by partnering with criminal justice leaders, county and state leaders and mental health professionals we can help people with mental illness get the support and services they need to stay out of jail.

The Stepping Up Initiative

NAMI is a partner in The Stepping Up Initiative, an exciting national campaign to challenge counties to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails. NAMI joins other national organizations calling on counties and communities nationwide to address this problem.

Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) And Other Local Programs

NAMI Affiliates around the country partner with local law enforcement on crisis intervention team (CIT) programs to help police recognize a mental health problem and get people to treatment. We also work on a variety of jail diversion programs, re-entry programs, and provide education and support to individuals and families at risk of involvement it the justice system. At this time we do not have this program in Queens/ Nassau, please contact us if you are interested in this program:

Please download this insightful interview about the NYC CIT program.


New York Lawyers for the Public Interest

Urban Justice Center

New York City Bar

Nassau Suffolk Law Services

Legal Referral Service
(Sponsored by the NYS Bar Association): 800-342-3661

Mental Hygiene Legal Service
For Assistance, contact MHLS through a Department Office:

First Judicial Department
(Counties served: Bronx and Manhattan) NY Courts TEL: 646-386-5891

Second Judicial Department
(Counties served: Dutchess, Kings, Nassau, Orange, Putnam, Queens, Richmond, Rockland, Suffolk, and Westchester) NY Courts TEL: 516-746-4545

Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York: 800-462-2922 (Covers Albany area, but can give other regional numbers)


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