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Katiri Zuluaga

Manager, State Initiatives

Diverse Stakeholders Gather to Discuss Mental Health and Criminal Justice Reform

November 30, 2017 | BHECON | Justice | Comments
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On November 9, 2017, the Association for Behavioral Healthcare and Massachusetts Association for Mental Health in partnership with the Behavioral Health + Economics Network (BHECON), hosted a forum to address the overwhelming number of individuals with mental health needs that encounter the criminal justice system in Massachusetts. The forum, entitled “The Intersection of Reform: Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System,” highlighted both national and local programs that are decreasing recidivism, or rearrests, and arrests for individuals with behavioral health disorders, increasing successful treatment outcomes, and saving money for counties and states.

Incarcerating Individuals with Mental Illness

Since 1980, the number of those incarcerated in the U.S. has tripled, driven in part by the incarceration of people with mental illness, who are nine times more likely to be imprisoned. In Massachusetts, 40 percent of prison inmates have a previous mental health diagnosis and 27 percent of prison inmates have been previously diagnosed with a serious mental illness. A stronger behavioral health focus in criminal justice reform could save the state of Massachusetts up to $300 million annually according to analysis by the University of Southern California’s Schaeffer Center.

Commissioner Joan Mikula of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health acknowledged that lack of available space in substance use treatment centers and state hospitals coupled with a shortage of affordable housing contributes to many individuals becoming “stuck” in the criminal justice system. Attendees specifically called for more resources connecting individuals recently released from jail and prison and individuals experiencing homelessness to mental health treatment and supportive housing to prevent them from continuing to cycle through the criminal justice system.

Diversion Strategies

A panel of Massachusetts-based organizations highlighted innovative programs, building justification for future scaling across the state, that included peer networks, re-entry services, medication-assisted treatment programs in jails, and police training on mental illness. Recently, 182 Massachusetts Police Departments have signed on to the One Mind Pledge to train 100 percent of police officers in Mental Health First Aid and 20 percent of officers in Crisis Intervention Training. Both programs provide first responders and other groups the training and skills needed to recognize and respond to mental health and addiction crises. Panelists shared that they need more data to help convince legislators of the value of policy reform and it is often difficult to collect that data with antiquated data systems.

New Opportunities

Commissioner Mikula noted that there is also an opportunity for early intervention with youth, to provide behavioral health services and prevent future arrests or emergency room visits related to mental health needs. “Massachusetts is ninth in the country for the number of children suspended and expelled in a pre-school environment,” Commissioner Mikula stated. “If we track them, we know where they will end up. Kids are the pipeline and if we don’t get at the pipeline [the demand will not decrease].”

Closing the forum, Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court highlighted the nine activities currently occurring to create change in the court system, including recognition for the role of collaboration, a systemic focus on issues of race, poverty, drug use and mental health, and a commitment from court leadership to adjudicate mental health related cases. “Mental Health courts are not as beloved as drug courts,” Justice Gants said, “and it is a data issue.”


BHECON forums serve as a place to bring stakeholders, researchers, policy experts and government officials across the fields of behavioral health, criminal justice, and public safety together to consider initiatives and reforms based on sound economic data. The BHECON Cohort 2 Request for Applications (RFA) will be open to National Council state associations from December 1 to December 21. The program includes a financial stipend and communications support from the National Council for Mental Wellbeing. To find out more, please visit or contact Dennis Alexander