Jail does not seem to motivate better use of mental health services.

Our legal system maintains goals of improving public safety and reducing repeat offenses.  Many people in the criminal system suffer from drug and/or mental health problems.  So, it seems a valid question to ask is if going to jail makes it more likely for someone to seek community services.

Dr. Allison Robertson and colleagues recently raised such a question.  Their findings are published in Psychiatric Services in Advance.  They found those going to jail before entering a diversion program did no better than those who did not go to jail.  They compared two groups of 102 people.  The jail group were more likley to get psychotropic medication (as the jail doles these out) but there was no other difference in terms of use of outpatient services; rearrest, emergency room visits.  At least for this group, going to jail does not seem to do anything.

Jail is a form of negative reinforcement.  There are plenty of studies to support this form of operant conditioning does not lead to changed behavior.  While we can also postulate there are many other social and economic factors affecting someone who may serve jail time, it seems fair to say that when it comes to mental health treatment, jail delays time to care and has no better outcomes.

Reuben Sutter, M.D. is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of New Mexico, and Medical Director of Sage Neuroscience Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico.