20 Dec 2009

'Too many mentally ill people' being sent to jail

10:00 am on 20 December 2009

A prison reform group says that too many mentally ill people are being sent to jail, and that such issues need to be identified earlier.

The director of Rethinking Crime and Punishment, Kim Workman, has been commenting on a Human Rights Commission finding that many people in detention are receiving inadequate treatment.

Mr Workman says New Zealand needs to do better at identifying mentally unwell offenders. In the United States, he says, offenders with clear mental-health issues are identified at court level and transferred to community facilities where they get proper treatment.

The commission's report highlights cases of unlawful detention under mental health laws, people being held in isolation and restraint for extended periods, and lack of access to mental-health services.

The commission reached its conclusions by combining the annual reports of five monitoring bodies and focusing on places of detention like prisons, police cells and health facilities.

'Ballooning' number with mental-health problems

One of the monitoring bodies, the Ombudsman's office, says there are not enough beds in facilities to accommodate the ballooning number of offenders with mental-health problems.

The Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Rosslyn Noonan, says the issues raised have particular significance in the light of New Zealand's high detention rate. The need for greater availability of mental-health services for prisoners is of particular concern, she says.

Mr Workman says the Ombudsman's office has launched its own investigation into the health services available to prisoners, and that, he hopes, will prompt the Government to treat the issue more seriously.