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Our Prison System Is Our De Facto Mental Health Care System

Estimates are that a third of the prison population has mental illness. 

A lot of my current work has to do with the intersection of neuroscience and the legal system.  I direct the Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law and the idea is how does modern neuroscience navigate the way we think about criminal punishment and behavior and structuring incentives and what we’re doing as a society. 


It turns out it’s such a rich area that, as I’m mining around in there, it’s hard not to strike gold everywhere you look.  Essentially, the problem is, in this country especially, we incarcerate everyone.  America has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  As far as the percentage of our population behind bars, we beat every other country in the world.  It’s a totally broken system because that's criminogenic, meaning it leads to more crime.  When you break somebody’s social circles and employment opportunities, you’re making it really likely they’re going to end up back there.  

There's so much more that we can be doing given the understanding we have of the biological basis of behavior.  We can help rehabilitate.  We can modulate sentencing in a rational way.  We don't have to treat everyone like they all have to go to jail with some mandatory sentencing. 

There are lots of things we can do to help.  We can split off mental health courts.  We can split off drug courts, juvenile courts from the main court system, so that we have some refinement in what we’re doing. 

As it stands now, the estimates are that a third of the prison population has mental illness, which means that our prison system has become our de facto mental health care system.  And aside from the humanity that we might discuss about that, it’s not effective in terms of the utility of solving any problems, and it’s not an effective cost. 

So it turns out that there are lots of things that we take as we get a better understanding of how brains are different and how we can help.  We can take that stuff directly to the legal system. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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