Thursday, March 5, 2009

Criminologists: Jails Are Psychiatric Institutions

LAKELAND | Florida Southern College's Risdon Slate couldn't have timed tonight's lecture and book signing any better.

The criminology professor and his co-author, W. Wesley Johnson, president of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, will discuss how and why jails have become the largest inpatient psychiatric institutions in the United States.

Along with what that means for the mental-health and criminal justice systems, they will talk about why criminalization of mental illness creates both a crisis and an opportunity for meaningful change.

Their talk comes days after Florida lawmakers passed an amended budget that cuts 2008-09 funding for mental-health programs, continuing years in which mental-health advocates say money for community care already was too low.

Polk County's legislative delegation heard Tuesday from local residents asking them to stop cutting funds for those programs.

"The criminal justice and mental health system is a total mess these days," said Slate, who has spent years advocating for improved treatment as a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"You've got a citizenry that doesn't want to pay a dime for anything," he said. " ... But you pay more in the long run. It's better to pay up front than it is to pay later."

If funding for community programs isn't adequate, he said, hospital emergency departments and jails feel the impact of people who need care.

Slate and Johnson both have doctorates in criminal justice, Slate's from California's Claremont Graduate School and Johnson's from Florida State University. Johnson is the doctoral program director in the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Southern Mississippi.

They have collaborated on a number of articles, Slate said, crediting Johnson with being the impetus for their book on "Criminalization of Mental Illness, Crisis and Opportunity for the Justice System."

Another factor was his own experience years ago of being thrown into a South Carolina jail for bizarre behavior. That occurred after a doctor took him off medicine he was taking for bipolar disorder, telling him he didn't need it.

But that will be the subject of another book.

The almost 400-page softback he and Johnson published in 2008 begins with the history of treatment and a summary of the current problems, but much of it is devoted to different agencies involved when people with mental illnesses come into conflict with the justice system. It covers jail-diversion programs such as crisis intervention training for law enforcement officers and mental health courts, both of which Polk County has, as well as other issues.

Their 7 p.m. talk is the Robert and Rose Stahl Criminal Justice Lecture. part of FSC's Florida Lecture Series.


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