Myths on the Mentally Ill and the Criminal Justice System

Myths about People Living With Mental Illness and their Involvement in the Criminal Justice System:

My Rotary Club this week, Austin Cosmo Rotary, ( is raising money for people living with mental illness to go to school and get skills to be able to become gainfully employed. In light of that, I thought I’d do an article discussing mental illness and involvement in the criminal justice system. 

More likely to be victims than perpetrators:

We hear a lot about “crazy people with guns” and the like, but according to several studies the mentally ill are much more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.  In a study of almost 5,000 mentally ill adults, it was shown that only 24% had been perpetrators of crime, and only 2.6% of those incidents were in the workplace or school.  A significantly higher percentage – 31% -- had actually been victims of crime.  Nearly half of that 31% had been repeat victims.  The study is found here:

Mentally ill cannot be summarily forcibly committed: 

I get a lot of calls from people saying “my family member is off her meds; can we put her in a hospital or rehab?” The short answer is only if s/he is a danger to herself/himself or others.  This means there has to be a demonstration of violence or likely violence and/or an active suicidal ideation.  Mental illness does not rob the person of the freedom that everyone enjoys in this country to refrain or abstain from medical treatment. 

If a person is accused of a crime and mentally ill, the lawyer can ask for a competency evaluation done to find if the person can understand the system and the accusations enough to held to trial.  If the person is found incompetent, sometimes s/he will be hospitalized to restore his or her competency.  This may be done without the person’s consent. 

Collateral consequences to incarceration are HIGH:

Many mentally ill people legitimately receive government assistance to meet their daily needs.  This may be SSDI, food stamps, housing assistance, and Medicaid.  What is unfortunate and needs to change is that after a period of prolonged incarceration (six months or more, even if never convicted of anything) the receiver of these services may be cut off from services and have to reapply.  This can leave them in a very precarious situation without the ability to meet their basic needs and without treatment options. 

Having a diagnosis does not automatically get you a better deal:

In Travis County and other major counties, mental illness is taken into consideration when someone is charged with a crime.  In Travis County, we have a Mental Health docket in which treatment is often a condition of a plea agreement, etc.  However, just because someone has a mental illness does not mean s/he is going to “skate” on a charge and not be held accountable.  That is a myth.  It is also a myth that s/he will be without treatment in jail as the jail is legally liable to treat them, and in Travis County, the jail is indeed the biggest purveyor of mental health treatment and medication.


We can work together to find better solutions to mental illness than the revolving cycle of incarceration, homelessness, and instability.  Join me and Austin Cosmo Rotary Club to raise money for participants at Austin Clubhouse to get skills to help them work and support themselves.  We can find community based solutions to the challenges of mental illness.