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It's time for Michigan to decriminalize mental illness

prison bars
Almost a quarter of Michigan's prisoners have a serious mental illness.

For many years I’ve admired Milton Mack, who is about as authentic a Detroiter as they come. Two of his ancestors arrived with Cadillac when they founded the city in July 1701.

I don’t know how long it was before those French voyageurs built their first prison stockade. But today, Michigan has tens of thousands of people in prison, which costs us almost $2 billion a year. Mack, who spent years as chief probate judge in Wayne County, has studied our prison system for years and made recommendations for improving it.

I became convinced long ago that if we listened to him, we’d have fewer people in prison, many would get better treatment, and the state would save vast amounts of money. The problem is essentially this: Michigan closed most state mental hospitals in the 1990s.

Without treatment, many folks ended up behind bars. As a report from the Sentencing Project observed, “Our criminal justice system has become a revolving door for persons with mental illness … cycling through the system again and again at great cost.”

Mack is now Michigan’s chief state court administrator, and he has just published a new report: "Decriminalizing Mental Illness: Fixing a Broken System," for the Conference of State Court Administrators. 

His report lays out today’s reality in stark detail. In terms of treating mental illness, we’ve taken several steps backwards in this country, and perhaps especially in Michigan. Instead of treating the mentally ill, we lock them in prisons where the cost of confining them is terrifically expensive and few get proper care. Ironically, Mack told me, not only would it be better to transfer them to hospitals instead, many wouldn’t need to be institutionalized if they were in a program to make sure they stayed on their medication.

As his report notes, “In Michigan, although the total number of prisoners is declining, the number with serious mental illness has increased 14 percent since 2012.” Today, almost a quarter of our total prison population consists of seriously mentally ill prisoners.

While other inmates cost the taxpayers an average of $35,000 a year, those with severe mental illness cost more than $95,000. By contrast, know what the state spends on adults who are seriously mentally ill but not behind bars? Less than $6,000 a year.

Mentally ill prisoners serve longer sentences and get into more trouble in prison because they are often unable to understand the rules. They are also far more likely to end up back in prison after being released, in a classic lose-lose situation for all.

Mack’s report provides the outline for a better path. He and his collaborators, including his wife Laura Mack, a Wayne County District Judge, recommend a five-point method of evaluating mentally ill people in the criminal justice system. Its goal is to establish “diversion programs to keep people with serious mental illness in the community,” instead of in jail, whenever possible.

When they are incarcerated, it would provide constitutionally adequate institutional services and establish re-entry transition programs when they are released.

Judge Mack’s report is barely 20 pages long, and it should be required reading for every lawmaker and part of every gubernatorial candidate’s platform. After all, a program that would save us money and keep us safer would seem the best political strategy of all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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