Mental Health presenting enormous challenges for criminal justice system

The treatment and care of people with mental disorders presents enormous challenges to the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland according to a new report by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI).

“Evidence suggests that one in eight people arrested in Northern Ireland are experiencing mental health issues,” said Dr Michael Maguire, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland.
“In addition, 78% of male prisoners on remand and 50% of female prisoners are personality disordered – a figure seven times that of the general population.
“This means the treatment and care of people with mental health problems is not a marginal issue, but one which affects all aspects of the criminal justice system from the police service through to the prosecution and court services, and concluding with the prison service and probation,” he said.
The inspection report which is published today (16 March) indicates that Northern Ireland’s prisons hold a number of people with mental health problems who, it could be argued, should not be there.
“In some cases, imprisoning people who are mentally disordered is not always the best response to their re-offending. It does them no good and risks further harming their mental health,” said the Chief Inspector.
“Our inspection findings suggest that the criminal justice system needs to develop its screening and assessment processes to identify, at an early stage, those people who are experiencing mental health issues. 
“Where possible, these individuals should be diverted away from the criminal justice system and custodial care and provided with suitable care in the most appropriate setting,” he said.
To do this, the inspection report indicated that staff awareness, in relation to mental health in all agencies within the criminal justice system needed to be strengthened, and more training provided.  
This increased level of knowledge would help criminal justice agencies to successfully identify those people who should be diverted away from the criminal justice system.
“For those individuals who are imprisoned,” the Chief Inspector said, “the aim should be to improve the quality of care within the system so that it is in a position to deal appropriately with a smaller number of people who may have complex needs.”
Dr Maguire indicated this could involve the establishment of a high secure hospital in Northern Ireland to which the most dangerous mentally disordered offenders could be referred for treatment.
Dr Maguire continued: “Steps also need to be taken to enhance the partnership arrangements between the agencies within the criminal justice system. This is to ensure a more connected service is provided, which deals with the needs of a mentally disordered offender at each critical stage of the justice process, such as arrest or appearance before a court.
Greater co-operation and collaboration between the criminal justice system and the Health Service he indicated, would also be important in addressing the issues identified in the inspection report.
“It is because a co-ordinated and focused approach to the delivery of mental health services is so important that Inspectors have recommended that a joint Health and Criminal Justice Programme Board should be created. 
“This Board will, if established, bring together all the relevant organisations to develop a clear approach to the needs of mentally disordered offenders,” said the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice.
In conclusion, Dr Maguire indicated that a co-ordinated, collaborative approach between the criminal justice system and the Health Service would have dual benefits.
“It would help contribute to better outcomes for the individual, in terms of fairness and appropriate clinical treatment. And it would have benefits for the community in relation to improving public protection arrangements, reducing re-offending levels and cutting the substantial amount the system spends on mentally disordered people who are repeat offenders,” he said.