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Mentally ill suspects present new challenges for police

Law enforcement officers from around the country have reported an increased frequency of violent incidents involving individuals who are mentally ill. This puts police in a difficult situation, acting using only their training as police and without the proper resources to occupy a role as a social worker or negotiator.

In one large prison on the East Coast, increased violence has been partially attributed to an increase in the number of mentally ill inmates living there.

The situation has worsened as state and local governments have faced budget cuts during and after the recession, forcing lawmakers to make the tough decision between law enforcement funding and other areas of the government like public services and mental healthcare. Unfortunately the reduction in spending on mental health services as resulted in this situation, leading back to questions about where funding is best allocated, particularly in light of the tragic consequences of leaving mentally ill members of our communities without the appropriate treatment resources to keep them safe.

Experts say that many people who would be in treatment or be institutionalized in a mental healthcare facility who are now walking the streets of every city in the country, rather than accessing the care they need.

These types of incidents highlight the need for more nuance in the criminal justice system and the importance of seeking alternative sentencing that includes proper mental health treatment for individuals who may have acted illegally but were not fully in control of the situation at the time of their alleged wrongdoing.

Source: New York Times, "Police Confront Rising Number of Mentally Ill Suspects," Fernanda Santos and Erica Goode, April 1, 2014.

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