Charts like this have been fairly common in criminal justice writing over the past few years, with media outlets like the Economist, Mother Jones and, yes, Vox referencing something like it in previous articles.
But as criminal justice expert John Pfaff points out, depending on how you read this chart, it can be very misleading:
1. This graph is really misleading. It looks like we’ve simply moved the mentally ill out of hospitals into prisons. It’s NOT saying that. https://t.co/ychg5i2dcI
In short, the chart isn’t totally wrong, but it oversimplifies a rather complicated story: While deinstitutionalization did contribute to mass incarceration, it wasn’t the whole cause or even a big one.
Beyond what Pfaff noted, there are a couple of other problems with the chart.
For one, it suggests that people with mental illnesses are violent and have to be locked up somewhere. That’s not true: People with mental illness are more likely to be victims — not perpetrators — of violence. And only about 3 to 5 percent of violent acts in the US are carried out by people with serious mental illnesses, while about 4.2 percent of adults in the US experience a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits their major life activities.
But those problems can be signaled and studied without simplified graphs. Like many things in the policy world, the connection between mental illness and prison time is a bit more complicated than one chart can suggest. Getting that nuance right is crucial to understanding and fixing the problems surrounding mental health and the criminal justice system today.
At Quintessential, we believe in the importance of mental health and also a robust reformative criminal justice system. What do you know about these? Our GP lessons will cover these in depth.