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Chapter 6 Section A: Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System


Most people during their lifetime, including people diagnosed with mental health conditions, have no or very infrequent contact with the criminal justice system (that is, the police, criminal courts, prisons).

A person may have contact with the criminal justice system as a person charged with having committed a crime, as a friend or relative of someone charged with committing a crime, or as a victim of crime. People also may come into contact with the police and then the criminal courts if they are a witness in a criminal case.

The majority of people with a mental health condition won’t ever have contact with the criminal justice system. People living with mental health conditions are no more likely to commit crimes than people without these conditions.

However, people who engage in criminal behaviour are more likely to experience mental health issues. This is reflected in the over-representation of people with living with a diversity of mental health conditions in NSW prisons.

It is well recognised, both in Australia and internationally, that poor mental health is much more prevalent among prisoners than the general population and that substance misuse and substance abuse disorders are particularly widespread among prisoners. These co-existing difficulties have been found to increase the likelihood of criminal reoffending. Such strong evidence has led to renewed government focus on improving mental health services for people in prison, as well as after release (with the intention of reducing reoffending) by treating substance dependence and other mental health difficulties.

However, people living with mental health conditions are often physically and emotionally vulnerable and are therefore also more likely to be victims of crime on one or many occasions.

People with mental health conditions can be stereotyped or misunderstood as being dangerous or unstable. They may be discriminated against and stigmatised as having no control over themselves. Consequently, they may be reluctant to accept their mental health condition and engage with health professionals, even when the treatment offered may assist their recovery. This can result in negative health, personal and social impacts. Stereotypes should always be challenged, including through education programs for people working with consumers and for those working in the criminal justice system. A person’s reluctance to engage with services is complex and they may have some valid reasons for avoiding a range of services and treatments.

This chapter of the Manual is written for those people living with mental health conditions who come into contact with the criminal justice system, particularly if they are charged with having committed a crime or have been the victim of a crime.

In this chapter of the Manual, you can find out more about:

This chapter of the Manual is not a general guide to the criminal justice system. Rather, it provides information about the rights of people living with mental health conditions in that system and the ways in which the criminal justice system deals with mental illness.

You can obtain information about from Law Access on Crime.

Updated April 6, 2020