Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts


Political Science

First Advisor

Dr. Rick Mayes


This thesis seeks to explain why rates of severe mental illness in the criminal justice system have risen steadily throughout the past three decades, despite an increasing acknowledgement of the importance of mental health to overall health. Legislative, scientific, and societal advances have aimed at increasing access to and bolstering the quality of mental health care. Yet, the large numbers of severely mentally ill persons residing in the criminal justice system imply care in the community is not adequately serving their needs, or that, for whatever reason, they are not seeking care. I begin my analysis by considering mental health care through a justice lens, laying out three conditions that must be met if justice is to be served for persons with severe mental illness. The first is material-based and is that persons with severe mental illness should have access to the material resources necessary for them to thrive on par with the rest of society. The second two are value-based and have more to do with the recognition this group receives. First off, there should not exist institutionalized stigma attached to persons with severe forms of mental illness, and, second, policies should reflect the unique needs of this population. When all three of these conditions are met, parity of participation is achieved. This justice framework guides the rest of my paper, as I explore the current state of the United States mental health system, the consequences of its focus on mainstreaming, and the historical reasons why the system developed in the way it did. I end by looking forward to small-scale policy changes that move persons with severely mental illness closer to participatory parity. I ultimately conclude that, although these policies likely will aid in achieving some degree of participatory parity for this highly marginalized population of individuals, we as a society have a long way to go before such an ideal can be reached.