By Jonathan Moore
Failure to provide adequate help to offenders with mental health problems is actually costing the taxpayer money, a report revealed today.
The report, by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, found that diverting individuals to community mental health services can reduce the costs of expensive court proceedings and unnecessary imprisonments.
It said getting treatment in the community, rather than serving a short prison sentence for comparatively minor offences, can improve their mental health and reduce the risk of them re-offending.
The report estimated it could save an average of £20,000 for each person diverted from the prison service to mental health care in crime-related costs alone.
"Our report shows that there is a powerful value for money case for investing in diversion," said Sainsbury Centre chief executive Angela Greatley.
"Yet most diversion schemes are inadequately or insecurely funded. Most do not fulfil their potential.
"Diversion teams rarely make recommendations to the courts or follow up referrals to mental health services," she continued.
"And some areas still have no diversion teams at all nearly 20 years after a government report called for national coverage of court diversion."
She said she hoped the report would show "beyond doubt that diversion can make a difference, not just to the people it helps but to their families, their victims, their communities and the taxpayer".
The present court diversion and liaison scheme only works with one in five offenders with mental health problems.
The report said that many were "insecurely" funded with an "unacceptably" wide variety of working methods.
It called for the government to at least triple present funding levels and to provide diversion teams to every primary care trust area in the country.
"We welcome this report, which highlights the dire state of patchy mental health services to those involved in the criminal justice system," said director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook.
"Prisons are not only inappropriate places for those with mental health problems, but they actually exacerbate the harm that leads to criminal behaviour in the community.
"As much as possible, vulnerable people need to be diverted from the criminal justice system and treated either in the community or in a therapeutic setting."
The report recommended that diversion teams be jointly funded by the NHS and criminal justice agencies and provide training to criminal justice staff to help them identify individuals with a problem.
One of the key recommendations was that the teams should be able to identify people from first contact with the police right through to their release from prison.
They should also maintain contact with those individuals to ensure they are receiving all the help and care they need.