Mental illness is a health issue, not a crime

To the editor:

I have worked in the mental health and chemical dependency field for 9 years and many I have worked with are wrapped up in the criminal justice system (CJS). Many that are caught up in the CJS are non-violent offenders struggling with mental illness, which cannot and should not be addressed through incarceration. We rely on the CJS to respond to people struggling with mental illness rather than invest in the spectrum of mental health care from prevention to recovery. Despite the fact that mental illness and psychological distress is a known problem, findings suggest that only 1 in 3 were receiving mental health treatment. Suicide is also a significant problem in jails. In 2016 alone, 1,000 people died in local jails with suicide being the leading cause of death.

The state of Minnesota incarcerates more of its residents than other wealthy democracies at a rate of 364 per 100,000. This is more than the U.K. (139 per 100,000) and Canada (114 per 100,000). Between 2000 and 2018, Minnesota’s prison population increased by 57 percent. In 2017 Minnesota spent $267 million from its general fund on corrections which is a 191 percent growth since 1985.

There are major discriminations minority groups face regarding rates of incarceration. For example, Black adults account for 34 percent of the prison population and only 6 percent of Minnesota’s adult population and are imprisoned at a rate 10 times greater than white adults. People affected by mental illness are more likely to come in contact with law enforcement and this encounter can often turn violent. People who have untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter, and those who have an untreated severe mental illness are involved in up to half of all fatal police shootings.

I write this to bring awareness to mental health and those that might be misinformed about the inequality and injustices that Black and other minority groups face. I also urge those to speak with your representatives Paul Torkelson (R) of District 16B and Gary Dahms (R) of District 16 to vote in favor for bills relating to these issues. Such as HF784/SF800, which, if enacted would have the state government appropriate money directed at ending systemic racism and adopting provisions that address racial injustice and systemic racism. Also, HF1097/SF1137 which relates to public safety and expanding a grant program to facilitate access to local programs to address technical violations by nonviolent controlled substance offenders.

Sources of information come from the U.S. Department of Justice, the American Psychological Association, Blue Print for Smart Justice Minnesota, the United States Census Bureau, and Treatment Advocacy Center.

Matt Miller



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