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SYSTEM STACKED AGAINST MINORITIES WITH MENTAL ILLNESS

Marlene Murillo’s 31-year-old son with schizophrenia has been jailed as a result of his mental illness more often than he has been hospitalized to receive treatment, according to the Durango Herald.

Murillo's story illustrates the level of failure in our mental health system but also highlights why some minorities are overrepresented in all stages of the criminal justice system.

One reason for this is the disparity that exists in the use of mental health services - even though African Americans and Hispanics living in poverty are almost three times more likely to suffer from psychological distress. In fact, African American and Hispanic youth receive 60 - 50 percent less attention to their mental health care, according to data reviewed by Benjamin Le' Cook Ph.D., senior scientist at the Center for Multicultural Mental Health research at Cambridge Health Alliance.

Even more tragic than the lack of access to mental health care is what happens as a result.

We all know that stereotypes of African Americans as criminal are deeply embedded in American society. But these stereotypes are most likely used by decision makers in the criminal sentencing process. Research from Melissa Thompson, a sociologist at Portland State University, shows that African Americans who commit crimes are less likely to be given a psychiatric evaluation to determine their mental capacity at the time of the offense. They are also disproportionately arrested and given longer sentences than whites.

What’s more, once they arrive in their cells, mentally ill African-American inmates are less likely to receive treatment than mentally ill white prisoners.

Even without the racial disparities, mentally-ill-minority inmates have little hope of receiving adequate treatment while in jail. With some jails reporting only 1 psychiatrist for nearly 1,000 inmates, chances are slim that inmates with mental illness will receive the help they need to keep their symptoms from worsening while in jail.

CHARLES BROOKS
CHIEF LEGAL COUNSEL
SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE

 

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