Proposal to keep mentally ill people out of prisons

A major shift in the way people with mental illness are handled in the criminal justice system has been recommended by officials in the departments of health and justice and the gardaí.

Key to their plan is a formal diversion policy that would keep people with mental illness away from the courts and out of jails, with much swifter access to a greater range of mental health services used instead.

They say dedicated senior Garda officers should be appointed to act as full-time decision-makers to ensure consistency where an arrested person’s mental health is in question.

Where a prosecution is mounted and a person is subsequently deemed unfit to be tried, they say it should be mandatory that the trial proceed to establish the facts of the case even if there can be no conviction.

Where a person is tried but found not guilty by reason of insanity, they say in reality there is only one treatment option which is committal to the high-security Central Mental Hospital.

There is an option under law to order out-patient treatment but this can not be used because there is no means of enforcing the order. The group says this option needs to be either removed from law or supported by an effective means of enforcement.

They also say that where a person is found guilty of an offence but deemed in need of care, recommendations from judges that they receive treatment in prison “are basically aspirational”.

The officials say the introduction of ‘hospital orders’ to ensure people are admitted to hospital instead of prison should be considered.

The recommendations are contained in the first interim report from an inter-departmental group set up by then ministers Alan Shatter, James Reilly and Kathleen Lynch in early 2012 and follow growing concerns over the past decade about the high number of prisoners with mental illness.

A report for the HSE in 2006 stated almost 8% of remand prisoners had the most severe forms of mental illnesses and could be classified as psychotic — ten times the proportion found in the general community. The number believed to suffer from significant or minor mental illness is believed much higher again.

The group has proposed a list of offences to which a diversion policy would apply — chiefly public order offences, minor assaults and theft or damage to property under the value of €1,000.

But they add: “There should be flexibility to include other offences by general agreement with the Director of Public Prosecutions or on a case-by-case basis with the consent of the DPP.”

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