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2008

Mental-health initiative aims to improve criminal justice system

Madison, Wisconsin - September 5, 2008

Wisconsin is one of four states selected by the Council of State Governments (CSG) to participate in the Chief Justices’ Criminal Justice/Mental Health Leadership Initiative, a project aimed at improving the criminal justice system’s response to people with mental illness.

During the next year, Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson will convene and chair a statewide task force consisting of a wide range of criminal justice system stakeholders and mental health professionals.

“Many inmates have mental illnesses, and to improve public safety, we need to improve treatment options for people with mental illnesses. Doing so will not only improve public safety, but also allow for more efficient use of taxpayer dollars. Improving the criminal justice system’s response to people with mental illness may help ease jail and prison overcrowding and reduce recidivism rates,” Abrahamson said.

According to a U.S. Department of Justice study, more than half of all prison inmates, including 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners and 64 percent of local jail inmates, reported having mental health problems. Wisconsin is no exception. These individuals sometimes leave and return to incarceration through a “revolving door” without getting treatment.

During the past 15 years, Wisconsin has experienced unprecedented growth in prison, jail and community correction populations. The prison population has doubled during the past decade, and adult correctional facilities are operating over capacity. County jails are being used for “overflow” of about 900 adult males, according to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, which will be a partner in the project.

"The Department of Corrections is pleased to be partnering with Chief Justice Abrahamson and others to develop a collaborative strategy that addresses the issue of persons with mental illness involved in the criminal justice system,” said Corrections Secretary Rick Raemisch.

“The initiative puts the focus on treatment and prevention, which are consistent with the direction in corrections and criminal justice policy that Governor (Jim) Doyle has set forth. By intervening early with effective treatment to address the underlying causes of crime, we can increase the chances for individuals to succeed as law-abiding members of the community who do not commit new crimes, which results in a safer, stronger Wisconsin," Raemisch said. 

The task force will be charged specifically with researching and evaluating evidence-based intervention processes that can be implemented early in an effort to appropriately divert individuals with serious mental illness away from the costly criminal justice system and into the treatment system when appropriate.

The task force will receive funding and technical assistance from the CSG Justice Center and National GAINS Center, two nonprofit organizations that coordinate the initiative. The task force will also participate in a CSG Justice Center–convened policy forum with their counterparts from three other states selected – Idaho, New Hampshire, and Delaware.


Support to the state task forces is made possible through grants from the JEHT (Justice, Equality, Human dignity and Tolerance) Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Funding for the planning phases of this project was provided by the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center is a national nonprofit organization that serves policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels from all branches of government. The Justice Center provides practical, nonpartisan advice and consensus-driven strategies, informed by available evidence, to increase public safety and strengthen communities.

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