Thinking beyond incarceration – Justice and the mentally ill

26th February, 2013 3:20 pm

By Sundar Thavapalasundaram

In Britain today mental illness significantly increases one’s chances of imprisonment and impacts disproportionately on the most vulnerable.

A paradigm shift in Labour justice policy is needed, moving away from policies of containment to preventing the mentally unwell citizen drifting into this lifestyle to begin with.

With the mentally ill currently constituting over 90% of the UK prison population is justice best served within the current judicial framework or does  it inadvertently discriminate?

Citizens expect criminals to serve their sentence and return seamlessly to society. This is predicated on the assumption that incarceration causes desirable changes in behavior and is not supported by high re- offender or re-imprisonment rates.

The prisons, police and judiciary lack the resources and skills needed to care for people with mental health problems. Furthermore, navigating the legal maze is complex and places the mentally ill at a disadvantage.

Politically, labeling criminal behavior as ‘illness’, risks being seen as ‘soft’ on crime. Labour must challenge preconceived ideas and champion reform in this area. The fact that most offenders with mental health problems are not dangerous and better treated outside the prison system must be highlighted and supported by strong moral and fiscal arguments.

It is morally wrong to incarcerate persons suffering with mental illness, particularly when competence is in doubt. Illness requires medical treatment and protection from the arduous nature of prison life. Placing vulnerable persons in this environment is an abdication of the state’s duty to protect its citizens.

Fiscally, the successful identification and treatment of mental illness, reduces re-offender rates and ensures convicts receive good mental health care. This may reduce the £11bn currently squandered on re- offenders, while alleviating the growing challenge of prison overcrowding.

Systems for identifying and diverting the mentally ill out of prison and into secure community treatment programs are needed. Reviewing sentencing and encouraging hospital and secure community care orders to be considered routinely is called for. As is mandatory mental health training for the judiciary, legal, police and prison services.

The judicial process needs to be supported by enhanced mental health services, with better coordination between prisons, secure units, NHS Mental Health Trusts, commissioning groups and community care providers. This would allow greater flexibility and individually tailored care solutions.

Re-examining the legal test for fitness to stand trial is important to ensure defendants facing prosecution are competent and therefore accountable for their actions. Used in conjunction with early psychiatric screening, this would allow ‘at risk’ defendants (facing possible custodial sentences), to be identified early. Judicial process might then be ‘reasonably adjusted’, to ensure fairness.

Conservative austerity measures are fermenting inequality, breeding criminality and eroding mental health services. Labour must respond to this if it is to build a truly fair society. Incarceration is an expensive, failed approach to justice and a progressive prison reform agenda is needed. What form this takes in fiscally challenging times will be the acid test for Labour policy makers engineering victory in 2015.

Dr Sundar Thavapalasundaram is a General Medical Practitioner & Member of the RCGP Health Inequalities Standing Group

To report anything from the comment section, please e-mail [email protected]
  • aracataca

    Really good piece. Perhaps the best aspect of this article is its highlighting of the sheer scale of mental illness among the incarcerated population in the UK and the necessity of facing up to this in policy terms.

  • Daniel Speight

    Dr Sundar you may be swimming against the flow with the present Labour leadership. The likes of Yvette Cooper have been playing the hang-em-high card for quite some time.

  • Sundar Thavapalasundaram

    Hi Guys. Thank you very much for your feedback.

    Daniel- I don’t know what the party leaderships official stand on this one is, but at Conference last year Sadiq Khan MP spoke about this issue in his conference speech on Justice. I got the impression he was keen to explore policy options in this arena moving forward.

    Aracataca- Thanks for the you compliment. I think if this piece makes people aware and gets them talking, then were one step closer to putting it onto the agenda as a serious policy issue.

    Best wishes
    Sundar

Latest

  • Comment Internal fighting must not distract us from reconnecting with working people

    Internal fighting must not distract us from reconnecting with working people

    Labour faces a crisis. Boundary changes and internal disputes are bad enough but the clearest challenge is surely the lack of belief in us as a movement by swathes of our traditional voters. At a time of huge political volatility – look at the demise of Lib Dems and the rise of the SNP – the last thing we can afford is the continuing discontent among our core voters that has been exposed in the referendum result. The lack of […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Europe Featured Let’s unite behind Jeremy and turn our fire on the Tories

    Let’s unite behind Jeremy and turn our fire on the Tories

    Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has been amongst those today seeking to blame Jeremy Corbyn for the EU Referendum result. But the reality is the blame lies squarely on David Cameron’s shoulders, which is why he was quite right to resign. To be absolutely clear, YouGov polling shows that 68% of Labour voters voted Remain, but only 43% Tory voters voted Remain. David Cameron failed to convince a majority of Tory voters. We also need to be clear that Jeremy […]

    Read more →
  • News Scotland Kezia Dugale: Labour will not support another Independence Referendum

    Kezia Dugale: Labour will not support another Independence Referendum

    Kezia Dugdale has said Scottish Labour would not support another independence referendum in the face of the referendum result, saying Scotland does not need “more turmoil, more upheaval and more economic chaos”. The Scottish Labour leader said the unresolved questions from the 2014 vote were still unanswered and repeating the independence referendum would bring instability. Dugdale said the Leave verdict would damage the economy in Scotland, adding that devolved administrations must have a voice in the Brexit negotiation process. “This […]

    Read more →
  • Featured News Unions Union leaders back Corbyn against “indulgence” of leadership challenge

    Union leaders back Corbyn against “indulgence” of leadership challenge

    Twelve major trade union leaders have backed Jeremy Corbyn against any leadership challenge following the letter of no confidence lodged against the current leader this morning. The union bosses say the a “manufactured leadership row” is the last thing the party needs in the current crisis, saying it would be an unnecessary indulgence. The letter, from the biggest unions in the UK, demands Labour is a “source of national stability and unity” in the face of Conservative turmoil. They say that, instead of […]

    Read more →
  • News Unions “The last thing Labour needs is a leadership row” – Unions’ statement backing Corbyn

    “The last thing Labour needs is a leadership row” – Unions’ statement backing Corbyn

    The below is a statement from union leaders backing Jeremy Corbyn to continue as Labour leader. The Prime Minister’s resignation has triggered a Tory leadership crisis. At the very time we need politicians to come together for the common good, the Tory party is plunging into a period of argument and infighting. In the absence of a government that puts the people first Labour must unite as a source of national stability and unity. It should focus on speaking up for jobs […]

    Read more →
x

LabourList Daily Email

Everything Labour. Every weekday morning

Share with your friends










Submit