From the Roots: Where Should Crime Prevention Start?

Alana Gordon

American University

When people think of criminal justice reform, they often think of reforming police brutality,
gun control laws, improving jail conditions, and decriminalizing substances. However, many fail
to consider why people engage in criminal activity, often instead honing in on what could divert
people from committing crimes. The law can prohibit people from purchasing firearms, but it
can’t stop people from having violent urges or growing up in violent households. Rather than
fixating on how to stop people from obtaining weapons or drugs, activists for justice reform
should focus on what the United States can do to prevent these individuals from choosing to
violate the law. Although the United States has implemented many successful projects to reduce
crime rates nationwide, they should direct their crime prevention efforts to improving mental
health accessibility to reduce potential risk.

With the highest incarceration rate in the world, the United States bears a major
responsibility in addressing their incarceration rates and finding ways to lower them (Henry). In
a profile for the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, a practice on Hot Spots
Policing focused their strategies for crime reduction on “drug enforcement crackdowns,
increased gun searches and seizures, and zerotolerance policing” (Practice Profile: Hot Spots
Policing). The U.S. government does not effectively seek help for potential offenders using these
tactics, but rather, they simply arrest these individuals at a higher rate to counteract crime
corrupted neighborhoods. In an official statement made by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the
U.S. claims that their strategies for reducing violent crime includes “assist[ing] state and local
law enforcement officials… and impartial policing” (Bureau of Justice Assistance Programs).
With a heavy rise in police brutality issues, relying on law enforcement as a solution to mental
health crises will only worsen the already difficult situations these individuals undergo. The
government focuses their efforts on how to catch criminals rather than how to prevent
individuals from becoming criminally involved, which does not truly assist in crime prevention,
just higher incarceration rates. In a Bureau of Justice Statistics study performed across a 10year
period from 20082018, reports found that “about 66% of prisoners released across 24 states in
2008 were arrested within 3 years, and 82% were arrested within 10 years” (Recidivism of
Prisoners). If these trends continue without intervention, recidivism in America will hit an all
time high. Arresting offenders without providing them with proper opportunities to seek help
will only increase the likelihood of their future of lawlessness. Making neighborhoods safer will
not address the root causes of crime, but rather, how to stop it after it has already begun.

To successfully reduce crime rates in the U.S., the government should analyze the factors
that influence crime, specifically with mental health. Ecosocial theory provides an explanation
behind how mental health and substance abuse can “go on to shape future behavioral responses
to environmental conditions via criminalized behavior” (Henry). Research finds that over a
quarter of individuals with severe psychological disorders have been charged with an offense,
and people with severe mental illnesses report higher proportions of criminal involvement than
those without mental illnesses (KennedyHendricks et al.). Moreover, in an IF project
constructed to understand the pathways to crime and delinquency, nearly every participant
reported that the main lessons they wish they had been told or experienced before they wound up
in jail included desires for a loving adult figure, people they felt they could talk to, and a
counselor or professional to warn them about the consequences of drugs and crime (Henry). Had
these prisoners and the millions of others in the United States had access to sufficient mental
health services such as counseling, programs, and further education on health and wellbeing,
they likely would not have engaged in dangerous or illegal activities. Not only do many people
fall into these paths, but many youths are born into similar dispositions of delinquency without
knowing any better. For most children involved in crime, their actions often “have little to do
with them and everything to do with their parents” (Wakefield and Wildeman 3). From birth,
these children enter ‘intergenerational patterns’ which they continue to inherit and pass on over
generations (Helfgott et al.). Individuals in prison have an estimated total of 2.5 million children
below the age of 18, all of whom are at a high risk of committing crimes in the future, as well as
suffering from mental illness in the future (Wakefield and Wildeman 4). Additionally, compared
to those without mental disorders, these atrisk individuals with mental illness “experience
higher rates of housing insecurity, poverty, and cooccurring substance use disorders” (Kopel).
Without proper access to resources to help them, these additional factors only increase their
likelihood to engage in criminal activity. So many factors contribute to the pipelines from
untreated youth discipline to imprisonment, putting these children at the unfair disadvantage of
inheriting a potential future of crime and substance abuse.

Among mentally ill individuals, people who go untreated face a higher risk of incarceration,
according to statistics on mental disorders and criminal justice. A large proportion of prisoners
nationwide suffer from one or more mental illness, and “[individuals] with mental disorders are
overrepresented in criminal justice systems” (Ternes et al. 104). As high as 60% of offenders in
jails and prisons suffer from psychological disorders, and nearly half have struggled with
substance use (Henry). Without proper treatment, these statistics will continue to rise, further
failing the criminal justice system in how the U.S. treats its citizens. Studies have explored the
factors that could potentially result in this disproportion, some of which include “the failure to
provide adequate communitybased treatment and fragmentation in service delivery” (Kennedy
Hendricks et al). Mentally ill individuals also have a higher criminogenic risk factor, yet the
justice system punishes them rather than connecting them with proper mental health resources,
even after imprisonment (Domino et. Al). Continuing to place mentally ill offenders in prisons
rather than mental health facilities inhibits them from recovering properly and increases their
chances of reentry, preventing them from ever accessing successful treatment. A large population
of prisoners suffer from untreated mental illness and struggle to access treatment, and the United
States should focus their attention onto these individuals and getting them help to limit crime and
recidivism. The U.S. must invest in alternative solutions for crime prevention to help these
individuals recover in order to maintain a fair criminal justice system and provide promising
equal opportunity mental health accessibility.

After release from prison, individuals still face struggles with mental health, rebuilding
relationships, child custody, employment, and housing (Ventura Miller). Many of the other
challenges these people face create mental health problems and make it more difficult for them
to avoid reentry even if they had no previously diagnosed mental disorders. Programs focused on
different strategies to rehabilitate atrisk individuals before, during, and after prison all prove
effective in reducing recidivism. In a practice profile for adolescent delinquency and problem
behaviors, family therapy sessions and adolescent diversion programs helped to redirect
participants of these treatment programs from rearrest 1 to 3 years later compared to youth who
did not participate (Practice Profile: FamilyBased Treatment). One program focusing
specifically on probationers with mental illnesses provided people with counseling, education,
substance abuse monitoring, and training on skills for everyday life and cognitive abilities. With
these services provided, participants in this program experienced a 37% reduction in recidivism
compared to individuals on standard probation (Program Profile: Community Reporting
Engagement). If every individual on probation receives equal access to mental health and social
wellness resources, these positive results will continue to increase. Additionally, more programs
such as alternativetoincarceration programs prove successful in decreasing the likelihood that
highrisk offenders will engage in misdemeanors, felonies, property crime, substance abuse, and
other criminal offenses (Program Profile: Swift and Sure). Programs like these emphasize the
reduced reentry and lower offending rates amongst individuals who receive the proper mental
and social care.

Despite the significant evidence linking mental disorders and criminal engagement, the U.S.
has not focused on mental health likely because “the relationship…is sparse, with varying
samples, designs, outcome measures, and mixed results” (Domino et al.). To address this issue, a
study done by Washington State using a differenceindifference design reveals that “chemical
dependency treatment provided to lowincome nonMedicaid adults was associated with a
significant decrease in arrests,” proving through unique methodology that mental health
treatment can contribute to lowering recidivism (Domino et al.). Although many individuals
experiencing early mental disorder predictors do not commit crimes, the Attachment and
Developmental Dynamic Systems Theory of Crime suggests that “criminal behavior can be
manifested or exacerbated by chaotic, stressful environments” and that criminal activity may be
motivated by the need to suppress or satisfy feelings or urges initiated by present mental
disorders in the individual (Lindberg and Zeid). Rather than waiting until these individuals feel
the need to get criminally involved, states should provide better mental health resources to these
struggling individuals before they turn to illegal activity as a response. Punishment through jail
and imprisonment is employed more commonly for mentally ill individuals than mental care
facilities or counseling, and research proves that “security responses to mental health needs have
not…demonstrated to be an appropriate response” (Ternes et al. 116). The United States
National Institute of Justice has performed and collaborated on numerous programs and practices
to address crime prevention, most of which surround the employment of law enforcement. While
many of these programs have proved effective, they also proved more effective in identifying
crime than in helping potential criminals. Despite the United States’ extensive programs for
crime reduction and prevention, they could strongly benefit from a primary focus on mental
health accessibility.

Mental health resources are scarcely inaccessible for many Americans, making it difficult for
individuals struggling to receive adequate care to avert future outbursts or reactions. These
resources Americans struggle to reach include counseling, psychiatry and rehabilitation centers,
prescription medication, and school services. Studies have observed that “nearly half of the 60
million adults and children living with mental health conditions in the United States go without
any treatment,” and only around 20% of children suffering from psychological or behavioral
disorders receive specialized treatment (The Doctor Is Out; CDC). Individuals who do
successfully seek treatment face many obstacles along the way, including cost, physician
availability, and time. Even when resources are attainable, “allocation of resources as well as the
quality of these services… may be unevenly distributed across different geographical areas”
including financially disadvantaged communities and rural areas (National Collaborating
Centre). Without equally accessible mental health resources, mentally ill individuals will
continue to dominate the populations of the prisons in America. The United States continues to
experience an increasingly concerning shortage of mental health services, with studies estimating
that “over 75% of all U.S. counties have severe shortages of mental health service providers”
(Grant et al.). This lack of mental health resources further emphasizes the serious concern for the
accessibility of mental health resources and why the U.S. should prioritize improving this
accessibility. For individuals to receive sufficient resources to properly treat their mental
disorders and thwart criminal behaviors, the United States must first acknowledge the countless
disadvantages individuals face that inhibit them from accessing the already limited resources
available to them.

Crime prevention goals for the U.S. should ideally surround finding the roots of pathways to
crime and helping individuals avoid these pathways. The Emotional and Behavioral Health
Crisis Response and Prevention intervention serves as a strong example of ways to identify risk
factors at the lowest levels. This schoolbased behavioral program strives to “increas[e]
school/community competence in responding to and preventing student emotional and behavioral
health crises” (Program Profile: Emotional and Behavioral Health). The outcomes of these
implemented interventions resulted in the participating schools having 56% fewer suspensions
than schools that did not participate, as well as 75% fewer office referrals (Program Profile:
Emotional and Behavioral Health). When schools provide better services for their students, they
prevent this student engagement in crime both in and out of school. In the 20172018 school
year, 80% of public schools reported that “one or more incidents of violence, theft, or other
crimes” had been recorded in schools, and 47% of schools recorded incidents of crime to the
police that year (Irvin, et al.). If crime prevention focuses on school programming and reassuring
accessibility to adequate mental health services, students’ behavior can improve from a young
age, preventing a future of delinquency and crime. Outside of school, some communitybased
solutions include “helping communities identify the risk and protective factors that influence
child and adolescent development” and assisting communities in developing programs and
resources to help these atrisk individuals (Biglan and Van Ryzin). Further solutions include
policy changes for mental health and Medicaid legislation which “represent opportunities to
decrease incarceration of people with mental illness by connecting them to behavioral health
services” (Domino et al.). Implementing both communitybased resources and financial focused
resources will help improve accessibility for mentally ill individuals to receive treatment,
especially amongst financially struggling communities and marginalized groups. Several
potential practices and programs exist to address the benefit of centralizing crime prevention
efforts around mental health accessibility, and the United States should look to begin
implementing such solutions.

The United States has found effective ways to address crime prevention through law
enforcement interactions and other successful programs, but they could greatly benefit from
establishing more programs and resources dedicated to mental health accessibility for atrisk
individuals as well as previous offenders both in and out of prison. Through many different
implementations of these focuses, the U.S. will not only help lower its crime rates, but also stop
crime at its very roots. The United States has the unique opportunity to help individuals avoid
falling into a life of crime and jail should they choose to make mental health resources more
accessible to these untreated individuals.

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