Our system is unfair to those struggling with mental illness.

Before Paton Blough got his bipolar disorder under control, it nearly cost him everything.

The Greenville, South Carolina, resident was arrested six times in three years, each for an episode related to his illness. Instead of receiving treatment, he was thrown in jail. In the rough prison environment and without proper treatment, he ended up with two felony convictions for crimes committed while incarcerated.

Blough managed to find a path to treatment. That makes him one of the lucky ones. Today, mentally ill Americans are disproportionately more likely to be arrested, incarcerated, suffer solitary confinement or rape in prison and commit another crime once released.

Quick: Name the largest provider of mental health care in America. If you guessed “our prisons and jails,” you would be right.

A 2006 U.S. Department of Justice study found that three out of four female inmates in state prisons, 64% of all people in jail, 56% of all state prison inmates and 45% of people in federal prison have symptoms or a history of mental disorder.

America’s approach when the mentally ill commit nonviolent crimes — locking them up without addressing the problem — is a solution straight out of the 1800s.

When governments closed state-run psychiatric facilities in the late 1970s, it didn’t replace them with community care, and by default, the mentally ill often ended up in jails. There are roughly as many people in Anchorage, Alaska, or Trenton, New Jersey, as there are inmates with severe mental illness in American prisons and jails, according to one 2012 estimate. The estimated number of inmates with mental illness outstrips the number of patients in state psychiatric hospitals by a factor of 10.

Today, in 44 states and the District of Columbia, the largest prison or jail holds more people with serious mental illness than the largest psychiatric hospital. With 2 million people with mental illness booked into jails each year, it is not surprising that the biggest mental health providers in the country are LA County Jail, Rikers Island in New York and Cook County Jail in Chicago.

Our system is unfair to those struggling with mental illness.

Cycling them through the criminal justice system, we miss opportunities to link them to treatment that could lead to drastic improvements in their quality of life and our public safety. These people are sick, not bad, and they can be diverted to mental health programs that cost less and are more effective than jail time. People who’ve committed nonviolent crimes can often set themselves on a better path if they are provided with proper treatment.

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