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Federal Prisons: Information on Inmates with Serious Mental Illness and Strategies to Reduce Recidivism

GAO-18-182 Published: Feb 15, 2018. Publicly Released: Feb 15, 2018.
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What GAO Found

About two-thirds of inmates with a serious mental illness in the Department of Justice's (DOJ) Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) were incarcerated for four types of offenses—drug (23 percent), sex offenses (18 percent), weapons and explosives (17 percent), and robbery (8 percent)—as of May 27, 2017. GAO's analysis found that BOP inmates with serious mental illness were incarcerated for sex offenses, robbery, and homicide/aggravated assault at about twice the rate of inmates without serious mental illness, and were incarcerated for drug and immigration offenses at about half or less the rate of inmates without serious mental illness. GAO also analyzed available data on three selected states' inmate populations and the most common crimes committed by inmates with serious mental illness varied from state to state due to different law enforcement priorities, definitions of serious mental illness and methods of tracking categories of crime in their respective data systems.

BOP does not track costs related to incarcerating or providing mental health care services to inmates with serious mental illness, but BOP and selected states generally track these costs for all inmates. BOP does not track costs for inmates with serious mental illness in part because it does not track costs for individual inmates due to resource restrictions and the administrative burden such tracking would require. BOP does track costs associated with mental health care services system-wide and by institution. System-wide, for fiscal year 2016, BOP spent about $72 million on psychology services, $5.6 million on psychotropic drugs and $4.1 million on mental health care in residential reentry centers. The six state departments of corrections each used different methods and provided GAO with estimates for different types of mental health care costs. For example, two states provided average per-inmate costs of incarceration for mental health treatment units where some inmates with serious mental illness are treated; however, these included costs for inmates without serious mental illness housed in those units.

DOJ, Department of Health and Human Service's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and criminal justice and mental health experts have developed a framework to reduce recidivism among adults with mental illness. The framework calls for correctional agencies to assess individuals' recidivism risk and substance abuse and mental health needs and target treatment to those with the highest risk of reoffending. To help implement this framework, SAMHSA, in collaboration with DOJ and other experts, developed guidance for mental health, correctional, and community stakeholders on (1) assessing risk and clinical needs, (2) planning treatment in custody and upon reentry based on risks and needs, (3) identifying post-release services, and (4) coordinating with community-based providers to avoid gaps in care. BOP and the six states also identified strategies for reducing recidivism consistent with this guidance, such as memoranda of understanding between correctional and mental health agencies to coordinate care. Further, GAO's literature review found that programs that reduced recidivism among offenders with mental illness generally offered multiple support services, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, case management, and housing assistance.

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2016, SAMHSA estimated that about 10.4 million adults in the United States suffered from a serious mental illness, which generally includes conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. As of May 27, 2017, BOP was responsible for overseeing 187,910 inmates and 7,831 of these inmates were considered to have a serious mental illness. Research has shown that inmates with serious mental illness are more likely to recidivate than those without.

The 21st Century Cures Act directed GAO to report on the prevalence of crimes committed by persons with serious mental illness and the costs to treat these offenders—including identifying strategies for reducing recidivism among these individuals. This report discusses (1) what is known about crimes committed by inmates with serious mental illness incarcerated by the federal and selected state governments; (2) what is known about the costs to the federal and selected state governments to incarcerate and provide mental health care services to those individuals; and (3) what strategies have the federal and selected state governments and studies identified for reducing recidivism among individuals with serious mental illness.

GAO selected six states that varied in their adult incarceration rates and provided geographic diversity. At BOP and the six states' departments of corrections, GAO analyzed criminal offense and incarceration and mental health care cost data and interviewed officials about strategies for reducing recidivism for inmates with serious mental illness. The results from these six states are not generalizable, but provide insights. GAO also reviewed studies that analyzed the relationship between various programs and recidivism among offenders with mental illness.

For more information, contact Diana Maurer at (202) 512-8777 or

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