January 25, 2021 – Criminal Justice

Reducing the human and financial toll of incarcerating individuals with mental illness


Approximately two million arrests occur each year involving Americans with serious mental illness, which has resulted in disproportionate representation of the mentally ill within the nation’s inmate population. However, mental illness is not a strong predictor of criminal behavior, and many arrests related to mental illness are for minor crimes or misdemeanors.

Taken together, these data points suggest that alternatives to arrest and incarceration could keep communities safe while also addressing mental-health challenges.

New York University School of Law Professor Anne M. Milgram believes equipping law enforcement with tools to identify mental illness could reduce prison populations and, more importantly, help individuals get the care they need.

Three years ago, Milgram and her team at the NYU Criminal Justice Lab worked with experts in mental illness and substance abuse to develop a short, 10-item questionnaire police can use to determine if a suspect is suffering from mental illness and unlikely to be a threat. If the suspect fell into that category, police could route the individuals to programs that address the underlying health issues, rather than jail.

Milgram and her team then turned the questionnaire into an app and rolled out the tool in 2018 with police officers in Indianapolis, Indiana, and McLean County, Illinois. The officers who used the tool reported that it was simple to use.

It also was effective. When the NYU researchers compared the questionnaire’s findings to the results of lengthier psychological evaluations for 711 individuals booked into jails, they found the questionnaire was accurate, and helped law enforcement separate the individuals who were dangerous criminals from those suffering from mental-health or substance-abuse disorders. In Indianapolis, 48 percent of all individuals screened as part of the pilot program were identified as eligible for potential diversion based on mental illness, substance-use disorder, or co-occurring disorders. Milgram believes that if even a portion of eligible arrestees are diverted to treatment, it could significantly reduce the number of people flowing into the nation’s criminal justice system and result in cost savings for government.

With a $408,000 grant from the Charles Koch Foundation, Milgram will now carry out the next phase of her work, testing the tool in two additional cities and sharing the outcomes. After testing, Milgram’s goal is to bring the tool to communities across the nation that are committed to ensuring safe and effective policing.

“By finding creative alternatives that give police new options for evaluating individual encounters, Professor Milgram is driving criminal justice reform as it relates to mental health,” said Charles Koch Foundation Executive Director Ryan Stowers. “We are excited to support this program, which will help police departments better serve their communities by reducing the significant human and financial costs of incarcerating individuals who would benefit from treatment.”

Read more about Milgram and her work here.

The Charles Koch Foundation partners with social entrepreneurs to drive societal progress through academic research and innovations that help all learners realize their potential. Read more about the Foundation’s support for academic research on criminal justice.