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Understanding and Managing Risks for People with Behavioral Health Needs: FAQs for Local Prosecutors

NCJ Number
Date Published
March 2021

This brief summarizes research on people with behavioral health needs and the stigmas they face, and it suggests steps for prosecutors that can improve the outcomes for this population, reduce risk, and maintain public safety.


The issues addressed from research on people with behavioral health needs are their disproportionate representation in the criminal justice system; misconceptions about the link between behavioral health needs and the risk for violent behavior; the effectiveness of treatment in reducing recidivism among people with behavioral health needs; and recovery from mental disorders is not always linear, with setbacks being common in recovery. This report then discusses why prosecutors should consider recommending alternatives to incarceration for people with behavioral health needs. The reasons discussed are to advance individual outcomes, protect public safety, and save money. This is followed by an overview of what prosecutors can do in cases that involve people with behavioral health needs.  Recommended actions are to obtain assessment results early in determining whether the person can be released and safely treated in the community, obtain information on the availability of behavioral health diversion programs, work with partners to ensure comprehensive case planning, ensure the development of relapse prevention plans, and use a procedural justice framework. This report concludes with a discussion of how prosecutors can assist in promoting systemic change in the criminal justice processing of persons with behavioral health needs. Suggestions are to lead by example, monitor for racial disparities and increase equal access, encourage and participate in relevant training, and promote interdisciplinary collaboration.

Date Published: March 1, 2021