By Leah Asmelash
Incarceration is not the best option for mentally challenged offenders: they don’t get the help they need and end up behind bars again.
That’s what a study by North Carolina Central University graduate student Krystal Giles found. And Giles should know: she’s also a contracted transporter for involuntary commitment patients for the Wake County Sheriff’s Office.
Giles transports offenders between facilities, for example, from an emergency room to another hospital. She has seen the same people going through the system, sometimes multiple times in a month.
“These people aren’t getting any help,” she said. “They get out and they go straight back to the hospital. And I was like, obviously the system that we have in place right now is not working, is not helping this population.”
So Giles took a closer look for her master’s degree program in criminal justice at Central.
In a study titled “Reducing Recidivism Rates of the Mentally Challenged Offenses,” Giles found that offenders with mental health issues do not benefit from incarceration as it is structured now and do not receive adequate treatment for their mental illness. She looked at data from a review of hundreds of thousands of mentally challenged offenders that found that people with mental challenges were more likely to return to prison or jail after release.
That squares with data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics that has found that people with mental health issues were more likely to reoffend.
The study aims to help policymakers find alternatives to reduce the number of mentally challenged offenders entering the criminal justice system and improve the treatment available there. She presented her research during a legislative advocacy day Tuesday to show lawmakers the work of graduate students across the state.
“One in five people have a mental illness,” Giles said. “We can treat those people and possibly stop them from coming back into the system, which would keep it from being overcrowded.”
Community services to assist the mentally ill cost less than incarceration and inpatient units, which can be over a thousand dollars a day. Giles said the current system leans more toward punishment of mentally ill offenders rather than restorative justice.
“We should have more funding, and we should have more mental health courts LINK instead of just incarceration,” Giles said. “We don’t take into consideration their background and what’s going on.”
Giles also said there should be more communication between criminal justice and mental health professionals, and law enforcement officers need more training, especially in crisis intervention.
“You need extra, beyond (crisis intervention training),” Giles said. “We have more and more people that are having psychotic breaks and you need to know how to handle it. Because what you think is somebody being combative could be somebody that’s in a manic stage, and they just don’t know what’s going on.”
There needs to be more mental illness information within the community as well, Giles said.
“Most people don’t know where to go if you’re in a mental health crisis, and I feel like it’s so taboo no one says anything about it,” she said. “You need to know what your resources are so you don’t do anything you’re not supposed to do, so you get the help that you need.”