An independent inquiry has called for more to be done to keep offenders with mental health conditions and learning difficulties out of the prison system.
Lord Bradley, in his review of people with mental health problems and learning difficulties in the criminal justice system, said: “While public protection remains the priority, there is a growing consensus that prison may not always be the right environment for those with severe mental illness.”
His inquiry, set up by the government in 2007, was welcomed by ministers across government, who said they recognised the need for reform and accepted the “overwhelming majority” of its 82 recommendations.
Lord Bradley called for criminal justice mental health teams to ensure early assessment of offenders and “better charging, prosecution and sentencing decisions”, allowing more people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties to be dealt with in the community.
Other recommendations included: better awareness training for staff in police stations, schools, social care and health settings, courts and prisons; better prevention work in the community with those involved in low-level offending or anti-social behaviour; better coordination between services; improved continuity of care; and a new national board to address the overall problem.
The government said the board would be set up by the end of May, with its first priority to consider the report and respond with a national plan by October.
The report also said “immediate consideration” should be given to extending the special measures provided for witnesses with communication problems to defendants with similar needs.
And it called for a mentoring programme for people with mental health problems or learning difficulties leaving custody and returning to the community, and for studies to discover how many people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties there were in the criminal justice system.
The mental health charity Rethink called on the government to implement the report in full immediately.
Paul Jenkins, chief executive of Rethink, said the government “seems willing to spend billions on expanding prison places when it could reduce prison numbers faster and more cost effectively by implementing the Bradley recommendations”.
He added: “Mental illness is not a crime and people who break the law because of it should not be in prison. Most people with a severe mental illness who are in prison are there on remand, on short sentences or because no appropriate health bed could be found for them.”
Phil Hope, the care services minister, said: “Part of the way forward is to make sure that the NHS and criminal justice services work together effectively by improving commissioning, training and the development of staff.”
Beverley Hughes, minister for children and young people, said: “By intervening early to support vulnerable children and young people and working with young people most at risk of offending we can help turn around their behaviour and help prevent their offending.”
She said the government has set out how to improve support for young people who enter the criminal justice system, and the new national board would ensure local services work together to identify young offenders who need further support.