A Healthy Blog

Massachusetts health care — wonky, with a healthy dose of reality

Prison Is Not Treatment

Prison Is Not Treatment

August 10, 2009

Budget cuts have real consequences for real people – consequences that will be felt for years to come. The crisis of the mental health system that the Children’s Mental Health Campaign and other advocates have spoken about in Massachusetts is one that is mirrored across the nation.

Today’s New York Times features a chilling story about the plight of young people with mental health needs who, for lack of proper resources and services, end up in prison.

The tragedy of these stories is that in many cases, incarceration could have been avoided. Early identification and treatment of mental illness is the most effective method of addressing mental health needs. Failure to take proactive measures results in a worsening of symptoms, an increase in the severity of the illness, and in some cases, involvement with the judicial system.

Estimates of the number of young people involved with the juvenile justice system who have a diagnosed mental health need run around 75%. However, in talking with officials charged with running the Department of Youth Services, many say that the actual number is much higher.

For the past year, our state has been faced with a severe economic crisis that has compelled Governor Patrick and the Legislature to make difficult budgetary decisions. The Department of Mental Health has been deeply cut, and services to its clients have been impacted.

It would be naïve to think that there will not be consequences from these cuts. Should we continue along the path we are now on, it is likely that we will see an increase in the number of children who become involved with the juvenile justice system. Prisons are not set up to provide mental health treatment. Even if the young people profiled in the article are able to complete their sentences, they will likely leave prison in worse shape than when they came in. The cycle will be harder to break.

Think for a minute about the impact – on the lives of the young people who will be locked up; on their families; on the state budget from the increased costs of imprisoning them.

Tough choices have to be made. But are we being pennywise and pound foolish?
-Matt Noyes