Community service plus mental health support could have been a better option for up to 8000 people in prison, but a lack of resources led to their imprisonment instead.
The estimation comes from a new report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) which says that around 10% of prisoners in England and Wales should have received a Mental Health Treatment Requirement (MHTR) alongside community service or a suspended prison sentence.
MHTRs are for people convicted of an offence which is not considered serious enough for a custodial sentence (such as serving time in prison) and who have a mental health issue that does not require treatment in hospital.
The intent of an MHTR is to stop the so-called 'illness-offending cycle' that results in people with untreated mental health issues re-offending.
An estimated two-thirds of people sentenced to a short prison sentence will re-offend, compared with one third of men and 15% of women given community service plus an MHTR.
Prison sentences impact the wider community too, with the cost of sending a person to prison for 1 year being around £35,000.
Of the 8000 people the RCP says may have benefitted from an MHTR instead of a prison sentence, 1600 are serving a prison sentence of under 1 year and a further 6400 are serving sentences between 1 and 4 years.
“Too many people with mental disorders who get involved with criminal justice are being failed by a system that overlooks the use of [MHTR]s," said Professor Pamela Taylor, lead author of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ report.
"Sending them to prison for quite minor offences may be dangerous for the offender-patients and may harm the wider community too. Re-offending rates are high when people are locked away for a short period while their problems remain unsolved or increase."
In the UK, uptake of MHTRs is very low, being included in an estimated 1% of all sentences, despite mental health issues being more common among offenders than the general population.
Latest data suggest that only 278 of 72,274 suspended sentences and just 391 of 130,761 community orders included an MHTR.
England and Wales also currently have the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe at around 80,000 – a figure that is predicted to rise to almost 100,000 in 2026.
“Thousands of people could benefit from structured, formally supervised care and treatment in the community, but mental health services don’t have the resources they need to deliver mental health treatment requirements at scale," added Taylor.
In response to its findings, the RCP is calling for a £12 million investment from the government to fund mental health services for offenders, to ensure MHTR availability to whoever needs it.
To read the full report, click here.
Written by Marco Ricci
Editor and contributor for Talking Mental Health