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Treating offenders with mental health issues ‘would save £700m’, Monday 23 February 2009 13.14 GMT

The government could shave £700m annually from criminal justice costs if it overhauled the process for diverting offenders with mental health problems from jail to the mental health system, according to new research.

The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health (SCMH) report is the first to put a figure on how much could be saved if the health and justice departments collaborated to direct more offenders in need of treatment to mental health services.

The report concluded that there was an “especially strong case” for diverting people who have committed minor offences and whose mental health problems could be exacerbated by a spell in prison. A spokesman said diversion services had evolved in a “piecemeal and haphazard way” creating a “patchy” and flawed national system.

Mental health diversion services in England and Wales have an annual budget of £20m and are jointly funded by the Department of Health and the Ministry of Justice(MoJ). According to the SCMH, an increased investment of £10m would translate to a £700m saving per year in trial, unnecessary imprisonment and other costs. It would also reduce the risk of reoffending if treatment was made available in the community as early as possible for offenders.

“Too many people with complex mental health needs end up in prison. This is extremely expensive to the taxpayer, it is inappropriate as a setting for mental health care and it is ineffective in reducing subsequent offending,” said Angela Greatley, chief executive of the centre.

“Our report shows that there is a powerful value-for-money case for investing in diversion. Yet most diversion schemes are inadequately or insecurely funded.” Researchers found that many areas had no diversion teams, meaning that people in need of mental health assistance were automatically ending up in the criminal justice system, according to Greatley.

There has been mounting pressure on government to reform the diversion system as prisoner numbers have swelled and the spotlight has been put on the inability of prisons to cope with sometimes serious and complex conditions among inmates. Estimates suggest that around 70% of prisoners have one or more mental health conditions.

In January, a joint report from the Prison Reform Trust and the national council of the Independent Monitoring Boards in England and Wales, the body set up by the MoJ to assess the living conditions of prisoners, concluded that a failure to identify people in need of mental health interventions is leading to avoidable or damaging incarceration. It suggested that too often the courts were using prisons as “a default option” for people who should have been diverted into the mental health system, placing “intolerable strains” on prisons.

The SCMH report, A Better Way For Criminal Justice and Mental Health, makes 21 recommendations for improving diversion, including making sure there is a diversion team for every primary care trust area along with national guidance on good practice. The government’s independent review of mental health in the criminal justice system, conducted by former home office minister Lord Bradley, which was commissioned in December 2007, is expected to be published in next month

Filed under: Other Mental Health

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