Root Cause II: Mental Illness

Colorado has, in recent times, followed an expensive policy of building more prisons, rather than trying to address the root causes of crime that would prevent it from happening in the first place.

The result can be preditable tragedies.  We saw one at an Englewood K-mart earlier this summer. It appears that schiophrenic felon Anthony Law shot to death one woman and serious injured another at the store.  Why was it predictable?  The man had a twenty-year history of  schizophrenia and run ins with the law as a result, and was apparently unemployed.  He was not under any form of legal supervision at all, and somehow, perhaps because he couldn’t afford treatment, his mental illness got out of control, and tragedy struck. 

Indeed, it isn’t clear that he could have gotten help even if he had had the presence of mind to go to a social services agency and say that he was a mentally ill person with a criminal record and needed medication that he couldn’t afford.  There are complex eligibility rules a quota of 2,040 beneficiaries, on the relevant kind of government assistance in Colorado. 

To the victims, it appeared random.  But, it was the sort of thing that was bound to happen sometime to someone in our current system.

Of all incoming prison inmates in Colorado, 19.9% have moderate or severe mental health problems, a number that doesn’t perfectly overlap with those who have substance abuse problems.  Among incoming female inmates, 29.8% have moderate or several mental health problems.  About 91% of Colorado prison inmates are men, and about 95% of those serving time for violent crimes are men.

Providing services to mentally ill prisoners isn’t a panecea, but it does work to reduce recidivism:

[C]lear evidence shows that Medicaid coverage reduces recidivism rates for mentally ill convicted felons. A Washington State program targeting dangerous mentally ill offenders for special follow up after release significantly reduced recidivism according to a 2005 study of the program.

This follows naturally from the reality that:

The combination of medication noncompliance and alcohol or substance abuse problems was significantly associated with serious violent acts in the community, after sociodemographic and clinical characteristics were controlled.

It isn’t that the mentally ill are more likely to commit crimes again.  Indeed, it doesn’t matter if they are or are not more likely or less likely to commit crimes again.  The key factor is that a root cause of serious crimes commited by the mentally ill is well understood, so, there are concrete steps that can be taken to prevent is misstep from happening.  But, often, Colorado doesn’t take those steps, sometimes with tragic consequences.

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Andrew Oh-Willeke

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