The connection between mental illness and crime would come as no surprise to law enforcement professionals. Since deinstitutionalization, police and sheriffs’ departments have reported an overwhelming increase in mental illness–related calls, a trend that continues today. A 2011 survey of 2,400 law enforcement officials reported that responding to these calls had become “a major consumer of law enforcement resources nationally.” A TAC study in 2010 found that there were now “three times more seriously mentally ill persons in jails and prisons than in hospitals.” Many county sheriffs’ associations estimate that over a quarter of their jail population is mentally ill. The Los Angeles County Jail has become the largest de facto inpatient psychiatric facility in the United States, says Torrey; New York’s Rikers Island Prison Complex is the second-largest.
Though the proponents of deinstitutionalization claimed that it would save money, even that claim hasn’t stood the test of time. Yes, expensive institutional beds have been eliminated. But weigh those savings against the costs that must be borne by other facilities, such as emergency rooms, prisons, jails, and nursing homes. “Untreated mentally ill individuals revolve endlessly through hospitals, courts, jails, social services, group homes, the streets and back again,” reports TAC. “It is a spectacularly inefficient and costly system, perhaps best symbolized by ‘Million Dollar Murray,’ a mentally ill homeless man who cost Nevada more than $1 million, mostly in emergency department costs, as he rotated through the system for 10 years.” Consider, too, the dollar burden that the mentally ill have piled on law enforcement agencies.