Vera Study Highlights Mental Health Needs of People Arrested in DC

NEW YORK, NY―People arrested in Washington, DC often pass through the justice system without having their mental health needs identified, a newly published research study from the Vera Institute of Justice reports.

Working with information from four DC criminal justice agencies and the District’s Department of Mental Health for people arrested in June 2008, researchers from Vera’s Substance Use and Mental Health Program (SUMH) compiled an unprecedented dataset. The research highlights missed opportunities to identify mental health needs among a vulnerable population that often cycles through pretrial services, the courts, jail or prison, and probation without treatment.

The report, Closing the Gap: Using Criminal Justice and Public Health Data to Improve the Identification of Mental Illness, was written by Jim Parsons, SUMH’s director, and Talia Sandwick, SUMH research analyst. It recommends information-sharing among relevant justice and mental health agencies—when appropriate—to capitalize on opportunities for early identification and to help ensure continuity of care for those involved in the DC criminal justice system who might benefit from mental health services, including community-based programs.

Among the study’s findings:

  • About 33 percent of adult DC residents arrested during June 2008 had some indication of mental health need in partner agency records between 2006 and 2011.  
  • Many of those arrested with mental health needs were not known to community mental health care providers. Most of the cohort members who had mental health needs (83 percent) were known to at least one criminal justice agency as having such a need between 2006 and 2011. Yet the Department of Mental Health knew about only 59 percent of the cohort members who had mental health needs during that same period.  
  • Criminal justice agencies often failed to identify the mental health needs of the people that they encountered. Six hundred sixty-six cohort members with mental health needs came into contact with probation, pretrial services, or the jail as a result of the June 2008 arrest; however, almost half (46 percent) of this group was not identified as having a mental health need by any of the agencies during those contacts.  
  • Thirty-three percent of the arrestees known to the Department of Mental Health as having a psychotic spectrum disorder or bipolar disorder were not identified by any of the criminal justice agencies; rates of identification of mental health need by the criminal justice agencies were even lower for people with other diagnoses, such as depression and anxiety disorders.
“Given that three times more people with mental illness are in prisons and jails than in hospitals in the United States, the importance of this study for Washington, DC and the rest of the country is clear,” said Michael Jacobson, Vera’s director and president. “Moreover, the methods used in the study could be applied in other jurisdictions to improve services for this large and extremely vulnerable population.”