Courts are failing to maximise the potential of community sentences that have the power to keep offenders with mental health problems out of prison.
That’s the view of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, a charity which has just published a report into this issue called, “A Missed Opportunity?”
The report, by Husnara Khanom, Chiara Samele and Max Rutherford, states that few people are given a Mental Health Treatment Requirement (MHTR) by the courts because it is poorly understood and prone to long delays.
The Sainsbury Centre’s publication examined why courts, probation and health services rarely use the MHTR and found that the purpose of the MHTR and the group of people to whom it can be given are not clear to sentencers, probation staff or health professionals.
Their report says that long delays in the production of court psychiatric reports are a major barrier to the use of the MHTR – yet without an offer of treatment from local services the courts cannot make an MHTR.
The report also stated there is widespread confusion among health, probation and court staff about how an MHTR can be breached and what should be the consequence (in some cases, breach of a community order can lead to imprisonment).
“A Missed Opportunity?” concludes by calling on the Government to issue clear guidance on the use of MHTRs. It says that court diversion teams should take an active role in identifying people who could benefit from an MHTR and that primary care trusts should make services available to support people on these community sentences.
Sainsbury Centre Chief Executive, Angela Greatley, said: “Every year some 70,000 people go to prison on short sentences. The majority of these people have mental health problems. Many could safely be diverted from prison and offered mental health treatment if necessary alongside other requirements to make amends for their offences.
“Community orders can be just as robust as short prison sentences and they have much lower re-conviction rates.
We believe that the MHTR has unfulfilled potential as a form of diversion from custody. We hope that the forthcoming review of mental health and criminal justice by Lord Bradley will pave the way for investment in diversion from prison towards more effective alternatives outside.”
Greatley’s comments follow a report by the Prison Reform Trust in February which claimed that “thousands of mentally ill people are regularly dumped in and out of the prison system”.
Meanwhile, in March, Welsh Assembly First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, challenged “the wisdom of a sentencing policy that involves many with severe mental health problems being sent to prison when what they may need is mental health treatment outside.”
To find out more about the report please visit the Sainsbury Centre site at: http://www.scmh.org.uk/index.aspx##