Conference Coverage

Mental illness and the criminal justice system: Reducing the risks



The intercepts

To demonstrate ways in which psychiatrists can intervene over the course of a patients’ journey toward involvement in the criminal justice system, Stephanie Le Melle, MD, provided a case example involving a 30-year-old African American man diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 18 years.

Courtesy Dr. Stephanie Le Melle

Dr. Stephanie Le Melle

As a child, “Joe” was neglected and abused; both parents had a history of mental illness and substance use. He experienced homelessness, never finished high school, and was hospitalized or visited the emergency department more than 15 times after going off medications or because of intoxication.

His history with the legal system involved a first arrest at age 14 years for gang-related fighting and assault (after being bullied as a child and seeking safety in a gang), followed by 3 years in juvenile detention. He was released with supervision at age 17 years, was arrested several times after that for public intoxication and loitering, and was held for several days or weeks each time – then released with time served or summons paid. His first hospitalization occurred at age 18, when he was diagnosed with psychosis.

Subsequent experiences included treatment in a community mental health program at age 25 for heroin use and drinking. However, he was denied admission to a substance abuse program because of his history of psychosis and violence. After stopping his medications because of side effects, he tried to buy heroin, got into a fight, and was arrested for assault with a pocket knife. He resisted arrest and was tasered, handcuffed, and taken to prison, where he was held because he could not afford bail. Involvement in gang activity while in prison led to sanctions, including time in solitary confinement.

During all of his time in the criminal justice system, Joe refused treatment, because he was afraid he’d be considered “crazy” and would be preyed upon even more by other inmates. After about 3 years, he was released to a Forensic Assertive Community Treatment team for 2 years and completed that program, and is now receiving treatment in the community. He lives alone in supported housing and has Supplemental Security Income. He does not engage in clinic-related activities and has a lack of trust in the clinical team. He often is agitated and disruptive in the clinic. Staff members have concerns about his history of violence and drug use, and were reluctant to bring him into the program.

“Going back to ... the sequential intercept model, we can think about things, as psychiatrists, that we could have done for Joe all along the way to help him not get into the criminal justice system in the first place,” said Dr. Le Melle, director of public psychiatry education at Columbia University/New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York.

This is a framework for thinking through treatment for a patient like Joe:

Intercept 0 (community services). At this early stage, Joe would have been screened for adverse childhood experiences, and that could have led to trauma treatment, substance abuse treatment, and educational and vocational services. Awareness of his family illness, discord, and poverty would have led to parenting interventions, early school involvement, and promotion of meaningful activities, she said.

“These are things, again, that we can address as clinicians ... to intervene with families and with schools and communities to try to give young people an opportunity to not get into the criminal justice system,” she said, adding that providing early co-occurring treatment for mental health and substance use is particularly important.

Intercept 1 (law enforcement) also is a stage during which a psychiatrist can intervene by giving pertinent information when 911 is called by providing police or corrections with contact information for follow-up. For Joe, psychiatrist involvement at this intercept could have allowed for treatment recommendations or assessment for diversion programs, and in fact, at some point during his care, did allow for communication about his treatment needs, Dr. Le Melle said.

In general, psychiatrists also can participate at this stage through provision of crisis intervention team training for first responders or by being part of a co-response team, she said.

Intercept 2 (initial detention/initial court hearings). Attending court on behalf of a patient can make a real difference in outcomes, she noted.

“Judges want to know that someone is out there who can help, and they want to know that there’s a team of people who can intervene and try to get someone out of the criminal justice system,” she said.

At this stage, psychiatrists can help by recommending a treatment plan for a diversion program, and – within HIPAA guidelines – can share pertinent information about treatment needs and preferences.

Intercept 3 (jails/courts). At this in-the-system stage, information shared between corrections and community behavioral health would have led to Joe’s transfer to a mental health/observation unit; he would have been offered mental health treatment and been started on substance use treatment; and he would have participated in motivational treatment and cognitive-behavioral therapy targeting his criminogenic needs, she said.

Meeting with individuals while they are incarcerated can be helpful for “keeping them grounded.”

This also is a stage where psychiatrists could help individuals prepare for release by getting them into a GED program or other training.

Intercept 4 (reentry). With appropriate intervention at this stage, Joe would have his benefits, such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income, reinstated prior to reentry to the community. Also, his psychiatrist and treatment program would be contacted. He would be welcomed back into treatment, and he would have assistance finding a permanent place to live with services provided in the community.

Intercept 5 (community corrections). At this stage, community behavioral health clinicians would maintain awareness of their biases and fears about people involved in the criminal justice system and avoid making assumptions about Joe. His risks, needs, and priorities would be assessed and addressed, and he would be asked about his experiences with the system and about what could be done to help him avoid incarceration in the future.

He would receive help in incorporating alternative behaviors and thinking to address dynamic criminogenic risk, and evidence-based practices would be used in treatment.

The sequential intercept model reflects the fact that the criminal justice system and the people it serves are part of the community, Dr. Le Melle said.

“The community and the behavioral health system and the criminal justice system are partners in our shared mission of public safety and public health, so we are one and we can’t expect that our responsibility for providing people with the best care and services ends if someone is in the criminal justice system,” she said.

Dr. Champion, Dr. Osher, and Dr. Le Melle reported having no disclosures.

[email protected]


Next Article: