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Irish Times: Courts explore alternative to jail for mentally ill offenders

16th November 2009

In an article in today's Irish Times, Dr Conor O'Neill outlines the obstacles faced by people with mental illness in the Irish criminal justice system, and the working of the Prison Inreach and Court Liaison Service (PICLS).

Dr O'Neill is one of three speakers who will speak at the fourth in the Prison  Law Seminar Series on 'Mental Health in Prison' this Thursday, 19th November in St Michan's Church, Church St, Dublin 7.

In the article, Dr O'Neill highlights that almost 8% of male remand prisoners in Ireland have current or recent psychotic symptoms, almost 10 times the community rate. The majority of individuals suffering from a major mental illness who are remanded to custody are charged with non-violent, often relatively trivial, public order offences. While these offences would ordinarily qualify for bail, Dr O'Neill points out that people with mental health issues face greater obstacles to receiving bail, such as inability to provide an address (due to homelessness), pay a bond (due to poverty), have a family member vouch for them (due to social disconnection), and give an account of their actions (due to symptoms of their mental illness).

The PICLS works closely with medical and nursing staff in the Irish Prison Service to screen and identify new remands with mental health issues. In 2008, the majority of assessments by the service took place within two days of committal. A report outlining treatment plans is prepared for the court. 

Since 2006, the PICLS has facilitated the diversion of over 300 individuals with major mental illnesses.  Dr O'Neill stresses that diversion should not be interpreted as a "get out of jail free" card, pointing out that where an individual is transferred to local services this is subject to conditions. 

It is effective co-operation and co-ordination that makes the service a success. Families, GPs, homeless services, addiction services, prison staff, judges, gardaí, probation services, community mental health services, are all involved in the process at some level.  

Dr O'Neill concludes by emphasising the importance of treatment for those who have major mental illnesses. Without treatment, the symptoms of these illnesses can make it difficult to maintain contact with friends and family, hold down a job, pay rent or remember appointments. Many of these individuals can end up in prison; institutions where, as Dr O'Neill maintains, treatment is not a priority. 

Read more: 

  • Read about the Prison Law Seminar 'Mental Health in Prison' here.
  • Read the Irish Times article here.
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