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Criminalizing Mental Illness

People with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police in America than those who are mentally well. That’s a startling statistic offered by our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, but one that shows how punitive our response can be to those in need of psychiatric care. As crime and homelessness once again come to dominate debate on the state of urban America, there’s little discussion on either the role of mental illness or society’s response to it. If someone is in a physical accident, like a car crash, we send EMTs with lifesaving equipment and rush the victim to a hospital. If someone is suffering from mental illness and acting out or committing a crime, too often we send the police and lock them up. Or worse. By doing this, says our guest, Dr. Christine Montross, we are actually jeopardizing the safety of our community for the short-term satisfaction of vengeance. Montross is a psychiatrist and author of Waiting for an Echo: The Madness of American Incarceration. She argues that these cascading problems began as a well-meaning effort in the 1950s to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill, who were often held in inhumane conditions in mental institutions. When new classes of drugs, like Thorazine, came along, society decided that the mentally ill could be better treated outside of these institutions. Except that, as Montross says, we never provided the funding or commitment to make this work. As a result, today the largest mental institution in the United States is the Cook County Jail. We say our goal is safety and justice, but “what we are really good at is suffering and vengeance,” Montross says, explaining that the US has created a criminal justice system that is dehumanizing and degrading, and that people come back out into society worse than when they went in. She shares with us “best practices” from other nations, and shows why she believes these can be successfully adapted to conditions in the US. Montross explains how we might actually change the culture of our prisons, why correctional officers also want it changed, and why it’s the only long-term solution to achieving safer communities. Click to Download Mp3 Full Text Transcript: (As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.) Coming Soon&;  
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Jeff Schechtman

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