Projects: Substance Use and Mental Health

Vera’s Substance Use and Mental Health Program uses applied research to help government and community-based organizations create services and policies designed to help people who use substances or have psychiatric disorders avoid criminal justice involvement and receive the services they need to achieve stable community living. Program staff collect quantitative and qualitative data, evaluate existing programs, and review government data to understand the experiences of these populations, the circumstances that lead to their arrest, and the policies that prolong their involvement in the criminal justice system.

Meeting the Needs of Substance Users and People with Psychiatric Disorders

Following are two Substance Use and Mental Health Program initiatives:

  • Understanding Mental Illness and Service Provision for Inmates at Rikers Island: New York City is the first jurisdiction in the United States to require psychiatric screening and discharge planning services for jail inmates with mental health problems. In partnership with the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, program staff are using administrative jail data to describe the psychiatric diagnosis and criminal history of a group of inmates in the city’s primary jail facility, Rikers Island. This information is expected to reveal patterns of offending that lead to the incarceration of people with mental illness.
  • Comprehensive Transition Planning Project: People leaving jails face a range of problems related to their drug and alcohol use, physical and mental health, unemployment, and homelessness. Program staff are using information from New York City’s DOC Inmate Information System, interviews conducted with those held in the jail, and reviews of national best practices to develop a new transition model that will provide people coming out of jail with greater, more targeted access to community service providers.


Why We Need This Program

Criminal involvement is often linked with substance use and psychiatric problems and rates of mental illness are much higher in the nation’s jails than for the general population. Rikers Island in New York, for example, holds more people with mental illness than the largest psychiatric facilities in the U.S. Despite the level of need for integrated services, the provision of correctional treatment continues to lag behind developments in community healthcare. The point of reentry from jail or prison to the community, which is challenging at the best of times, is particularly difficult for individuals who are also struggling with psychiatric, drug and alcohol problems.

For more information, contact program director Jim Parsons.

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