Barbara Pierce, Director of Justice Initiatives

Limited access to and lack of collaboration around behavioral health services continue to pose significant challenges for law enforcement, courts, correctional facilities, and community supervision.

Five percent of U.S. adults have a serious mental illness and the rates are far higher among people in our jails (26%) and prisons (14%). Yet, our criminal justice system has not traditionally been equipped to address the issue. We see even more pronounced disparities with drug dependence and abuse between incarcerated and non-incarcerated populations.

Some jurisdictions have secured resources and developed collaborations with behavioral health providers to address crisis situations and prevent repeated involvement with the criminal justice system. Still, a majority of counties and municipalities are without these resources and collaborations. Law enforcement personnel called to crises, for example, can be left to make difficult, sometimes life and death, decisions about people’s health and safety. These health and public safety challenges are even more pronounced in rural areas. Crisis training is often lacking and the transportation of a person for an involuntary hold can mean driving that individual in crisis hundreds of miles handcuffed in the back of a car. For small departments, these situations can also leave the jurisdiction with little public safety coverage for hours at a time.

Law enforcement and criminal justice officials are implementing policies and practices to more effectively manage these populations using data and research. CJI is privileged to work with law enforcement and corrections agencies across the country to divert people with mental illness and substance use disorders into treatment, when appropriate, rather than into the criminal justice system. For those who do enter the system, these leaders and those with whom they collaborate provide services designed to stabilize and improve their conditions. The goal is for an individual’s transition to the community to be as stable and sustainable as possible.

In 2019, CJI worked with the South Dakota Sheriff’s Association to kick off a telehealth pilot program that supports law enforcement responding to crises in rural areas of the state. We’re also assessing and implementing pretrial practices in five counties in Tennessee to reduce the use of unnecessary incarceration, looking for ways to keep people in the community and connect them to behavioral health and other resources.

We continue to work in Nevada as the state implements its Justice Reinvestment legislation. Many of the new policies set to go into effect in July will improve access to treatment across the state and provide more tools for law enforcement and judges to address mental illness and substance use disorders. CJI has also partnered with Louisiana to improve the experiences and outcomes, including behavioral health outcomes, for women in the state’s correctional facilities. We’ll continue to work with the state to implement many of those recommendations in the coming year.

Read more about CJI’s work in Nevada and Louisiana below. 


  • In December, Tennessee’s Criminal Justice Investment Task Force released a comprehensive package of data-driven policy recommendations that seek to improve public safety, increase reentry support and reduce recidivism, address unmet behavioral health needs, and make Tennessee communities safer.

  • CJI received a grant from the REFORM Alliance to work with a coalition of groups to advance legislative changes to improve outcomes for people on probation and parole.


Improving and elevating innovative work in behavioral health is an important part of CJI’s implementation work with criminal justice agencies.

Currently, most of CJI’s implementation projects take place in states that invest in proven practices to reduce recidivism, improve community supervision, increase collaboration, and address treatment gaps.

A significant component of CJI’s work in this area is the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). A central goal for states engaging in JRI is to prioritize prison resources for serious and violent offenses and invest in more effective recidivism-reduction strategies for those convicted of other offenses. These strategies include investments in services and alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illness and substance use disorders.

Here are some examples of CJI’s current work in Nevada and Louisiana.

In Nevada, CJI continues its work in the state with the implementation of AB 236, signed into law in June 2019. The main goal of AB 236 is to focus on recidivism-reduction strategies, while shifting resources toward more cost-effective public safety strategies.

The behavioral health-related parts of the bill direct resources to services at different points in the criminal justice system:

  • The new requirements ensure law enforcement is better equipped to handle behavioral health crisis situations through training and agency policies.
  • The state will establish a grant program to fund partnerships between law enforcement and behavioral health providers for crisis response.
  • Training on how to interact with people who have mental health and substance use issues will be required for Nevada judges, Department of Corrections staff, and officers within the Division of Parole and Probation.
  • Access to behavioral health treatment through specialty courts will expand. For example, more individuals will be eligible to participate in Veterans Court where treatment includes programs to address mental health needs, substance use disorders, traumatic brain injuries, and military sexual trauma.
  • The deferred sentencing policy allowing judges to discharge an individual who completes a specialty court and dismiss the proceedings without adjudication of guilt has been expanded.

CJI is also supporting the Louisiana Women’s Incarceration Task Force as it conducts a comprehensive review of the state's treatment of women in the criminal justice system. The task force was created in the 2018 legislative session in recognition of the fact that women in the criminal justice system face many unique challenges. As an example, women who are incarcerated in the U.S. often have worse behavioral health outcomes than both males who are incarcerated and the U.S. adult population (see below).

Over the last year and a half, the task force studied problems women face while incarcerated and when they return to the community and identified a set of possible policy solutions, including improved screening, education, and staff training in women’s behavioral health. The task force report is due to the legislature at the end of January.
Thanks to our many partners and funders who help us make this work happen. Read more about the Arnold Ventures , Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) , National Institute of Corrections, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) , and Pew Charitable Trusts.