Mental health in criminal justice system is not a marginal issue: Progress slow despite some advance

PROGRESS in the treatment of prisoners with mental health problems has been slow.
While some improvements have been made a report published today by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland shows that many challenges remain.
Entitled, ‘Not a Marginal Issue: Mental health and the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland’ the report is a follow-up to an inspection made in March 2010.

Dr Michael Maguire, chief inspector at Criminal Justice Inspection, said; “The 2010 report highlighted a range of deficiencies for those in the system with mental health problems and was published in order that their treatment would improve.
“And while there are some examples of excellent practice, progress in the last two years has been slow despite the recognition of the great challenges facing the criminal justice agencies in caring for prisoners with mental health issues.
“The early assessment and screening of people with mental health problems remains difficult as they enter into the justice system. There are still no clear rules about where people are to be taken when they are arrested or detained by the police.
“There have been some improvements in the information shared between organisations (particularly the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), as well as the information given to the court about people with mental health issues. It is not possible to say however, whether this had made any difference to the extent to which people have been diverted away from custodial care.”
He added that a joint DoJ/DHSSPS Working Group has been established and undertaken some initial work in developing a more joined-up approach. It is early days, and to date it has made limited impact on the ground. However inspectors are pleased to note the recent Programme for Government commitment to strengthen cross-departmental working to improve mental health inequalities.
Dr Maguire said one should not underestimate the scale of the challenge facing the criminal justice system and he outlined some of the stark statistics facing the authorities not just in Northern Ireland but throughout the UK.
  • 16% of people placed in custody meet one or more of the assessment criteria for mental disorder
  • 78% of male prisoners on remand and 50% of female prisoners are personality disordered – seven times that of the general population
  • 64% of male and 50% of female sentenced prisoners have a personality disorder; 12 and 14 times the level in the general population respectively
  • 700 out of 850 prisoners in Maghaberry prison are on medication, mainly tranquillisers, and about 7% of the whole prison population are thought to be seriously mentally ill
  • 25% of those committed to the prison system every year would say they have been in touch with mental health services in the community
  • In the United Kingdom, 70% of sentenced prisoners suffer from two or more mental health problems
  • 20% of prisoners have four or five major mental health disorders
  • 7% of male and 14% of female sentenced prisoners have a psychotic disorder, 14 and 23 times the level in the general population respectively
  • 95% of young prisoners aged 15 to 21 suffer from a mental disorder; 80% suffer from at least two mental health problems; nearly 10% of female sentenced young offenders reported already having been admitted to a mental hospital at some point
 “These statistics reveal the scale of the problem. Progress has been slow and it’s important that we continue our efforts to meet these challenges,” said Dr Maguire.
“Protecting the public from criminals is just one facet of the criminal justice system; providing prisoners with education and health care as part of their rehabilitation is another so that the likelihood of reoffending on release is reduced. That makes for a better society for us all.”
Mental health, he added, within the justice system is not a marginal issue, and work needs to continue both within and between justice organisations, and on a cross-departmental basis to ensure further improvements are made.

View follow-up report