An inmate in New Jersey’s Hudson County corrections facility recently committed suicide. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time an inmate has taken his own life at this facility; it’s the fourth time since June.

These suicides are indicative of a larger issue that affects inmates across the country. An estimated 20 percent of the prison population demonstrates some form of mental illness – accounting for nearly 2 million people. Given this staggering statistic, it follows that a significant part of rehabilitation should include access to adequate mental health services.

Inmates with mental illnesses have suffered significantly during the era of “tough on crime” policies. A 2010 survey by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that people with mental illness are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized and 18 times more likely to find a bed in the criminal justice system than at any state or civil hospital.

While the antiquated practice of “locking up” an individual “and throwing away the key” still appeals to many Americans – including some in the Trump administration – the trend of engaging in rehabilitation and education is moving America toward a “smart on crime” approach.

For example, in August 2010, the city of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, initiated a behavioral health court to serve individuals with mental illness in the justice system. Behavioral health courts work with city departments and organizations like local police, state health departments and even surrounding colleges – like Southern Miss in this example – to create a supportive community focusing on rehabilitation.

Sadly, New Jersey has made headlines for the recent loss of life. Yet we should applaud some of the state’s lawmakers for their efforts to bring meaningful reform to corrections facilities across the state in light of these tragedies. Comprehensive legislation in the form of a Senate bill filed by state Sen. Shirley K. Turner, D-Hunterdon and Mercer, would create a new program that would implement specific crisis-intervention training for law enforcement to reduce the number of mentally-ill individuals taken into custody. The legislation would also create a process to help the court system identify and assist perpetrators who would benefit from behavioral health services, in addition to boosting coordination between the state’s mental health officials and criminal justice officials. The language grants discretion to law enforcement in deciding appropriate candidates for diversion.

By working to identify and divert individuals out of the criminal justice system, New Jersey is taking a critical step to provide for a healthier future for all of its citizens.

Image credit: holwichaikawee

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