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Mental Health Referrals: An Alternative to Prison?

The prison regime has been at the centre of scrutiny in recent years. Particular questions arise as to whether it is effective in reforming those who are sentenced to serve time in the prison system, having been found or pleaded guilty in court. Significant criticism has been aimed at the use of prisons, with a focus on the number of reoffending individuals who find themselves in the prison system on multiple occasions. This is partly due to the ineffective nature of short term sentences in turning vulnerable offenders away from crime. Adults released from custodial sentences of less than 12 months have a proven reoffending rate of 64.9%. Further cuts to both prison funding and the resources (such as access to mental health specialists and treatment schemes) of the criminal courts have had a major impact. In turn, this has led to skepticism as to whether prisons are actually effective in reforming offenders.

One group of offenders that have clearly struggled in the past are those with mental health, alcohol and drug abuse problems. However, this is set to change. Offenders that suffer from mental health, alcohol and/or drug abuse problems are now being referred to health services. This would form part of a “community sentence” in an effort to steer these particular offenders away from jail time. Arguably, it has the benefit of relieving the strain that is on the prison system owing to the number of current inmates, which has seen two-thirds of prisons becoming overcrowded. More importantly, however, recognition has been given to mental health issues and the help that many sorely need is starting to be provided. Many offences that are committed do have a tendency to be linked to one of mental health, alcohol and/or drug abuse problems. Logically, one would imagine that addressing these problems would be able to positively influence an individual’s behaviour. There are recent Ministry of Justice studies that support the drop in reoffending.

Under a pilot scheme (currently being tested in Birmingham, Plymouth, Sefton, Milton Keynes and Northampton), psychologists and panels comprising of justice and health officials have been providing information to both judges and magistrates to determine whether offenders should be required to receive treatment. As per any community order, if a Defendant is sentenced and part of that order requires engagement with health services, failure to do so could become a breach of that sentence. This, of course, would be subject to further and heavier penalties.

Approximately 400 community sentence treatment requirements have been issued since the end of 2017. The trial is being overseen by the Ministry of Justice, who have received significant assistance from the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England and Public Health England. It is apparent that the intention is to use this system across the whole of England. However, this is subject to the results that are produced by the pilot scheme. It may be some time until we see the results in the form of a report.

It appears that the scheme has wielded positive results thus far and has received significant judicial backing. One of the reasons is that, procedurally, the system benefits. Usually an adjournment is required in order to produce a psychological report that assesses the Defendant’s suitability for mental health treatment. Clearly, this is not desirable; it creates a backlog for the judiciary to address and may tempt judges to steer clear of requesting a report. To have these facilities on-site within the court removes the issue and improves the efficiency of the criminal justice system.

Perhaps the implementation of this scheme on a wider scale will prove to be vital in the reduction of crime. This is yet to be seen and will be a result that only time will be able to provide. In any event, it is a significant breakthrough for the criminal justice system. It is an example of yet another platform taking considerable steps in addressing the issue of mental health, which has previously been seen as taboo by many sections of society.

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