Criminal Justice System; the largest mental health provider in the country

The law affects nearly every aspect of our lives. We have laws that regulate common activities such as driving a car and renting an apartment and laws that deal with crimes such as robbery and other threats and challenges to society. The criminal justice system represents any interaction with the justice system from police officers, court rooms and prisons to state run rehabilitation programs, probation services and half way houses. The economic impact of the criminal justice system in Canada represent an average cost of incarcerating of a federal prisoner per day is $259.05. Given that the length of stay in a federal penitentiary is a minimum of 2 years, each inmate costs the Canadian taxpayer $189,106.50 annually. The goal of the criminal justice system should always be rehabilitation and reintegration to life outside of prison.

However, the number of people with mental health problems entering the criminal justice system has been increasing, and the prevalence of mental illness in prisons is significantly higher than the general population. Canada’s jails and penitentiaries are rapidly becoming the largest mental health providers in the country.

Mental health care in Canadian jails and prisons is insufficient and many offenders with mental health concerns are moved into correctional segregation for protection due to their inability to cope with regular prison settings. Individuals being released from correctional institutions, who report experiencing stigma due to their criminal justice involvement, find themselves being ‘bumped’ or ‘overlooked’ by community mental health services. Take Trevor as an example.

Trevor has been in and out of jail since he was a teenager, and is now 35 years old. He has been diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, and antisocial personality disorder. He also has an acquired brain injury. While living in a halfway house, Trevor’s mental health care professional helped him to gain employment through a supported employment agency for persons with mental illness. Trevor was able to develop a personal daily routine that included going for walks, reading, and cooking for himself. The mental health care professional educated Trevor to help him better understand mental illness, and has taught him coping skills to help adjust to life outside of prison.

With the available research evidence showing the effectiveness of services for people with mental health problems, and improved mental health reducing involvement with the criminal justice system, “the issue is not whether effective treatment exists but whether it is consistently available to the people who need it, and whether or not these individuals continuously avail themselves of treatment” When the services are available and an offender has access to them, the return to life outside the criminal justice system can be successful. There is a need for federal investment to insure that a vulnerable population is not left without the mental health services they need.
Provided by the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists, for more information please visit

/ Mental Health