Health Association in New York State, Inc.
Community Connections, Spring 2003
Diversion: A Solution to the Housing Needs of Non-Violent Offenders Living
with Mental Illness
Individuals with mental illnesses represent a large portion of the homeless within our communities. However, many of these individuals became homeless after falling victim to our justice system. Generally, individuals with mental illnesses who lack the essential community supports and resources necessary to effectively gain access to treatment, may interface with the criminal justice system. This population, frequently arrested for non-violent, minor offenses, is often held in correctional settings for extended periods of time. Although many offenders are homeless at the time of their arrest, far more are homeless upon release because of the implications associated with incarceration. Many of these minor offenses for which this population is held can ultimately be attributed to manifestations of their illness. While incarcerated, individuals with mental illnesses may experience worsening symptoms, and often stop taking necessary medications. Without adequate discharge planning, medication management, or linkages to housing providers at the time of release, they decompensate further and recirculate through the criminal justice system.
Homelessness remains a problem for all individuals being released from jail. However individuals with mental health or substance abuse needs are the least equipped to deal with navigating through social service agencies and shelter systems. More recently, the increased rates of incarceration of individuals with mental illness, and the implications following release leading to recidivism have caused an increased level of concern among mental health and criminal justice professionals. As a result, diversion programs are being promoted to address the issue of increased levels of homelessness related to incarceration, and to provide this population with adequate mental health and substance abuse services.
Jail diversion programs can help individuals with mental health or substance abuse needs acquire and maintain stable housing, encourage, the individual to engage in appropriate treatment services, and provide ongoing support. Diversion programs, if implemented early following arrest, have the potential to substantially reduce the number of offenders with mental health needs who will lose their housing as a result of incarceration. As a society, we must continue to recognize the implications of inappropriate detainment of individuals with mental health needs. Diversion appears to be the first step in the right direction toward providing humane treatment for individuals with mental illness, while also preventing individuals from losing stable housing.