Northern Ireland

Prisons 'last resort for people with mental health issues'

Prisoner behind bars Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Short-term sentences may not be suited to addressing mental health issues, according to the NIAO report

Northern Ireland's justice system is being used as a last resort for people with mental health issues, according to the Northern Ireland Audit Office.

A report has found nearly two-thirds of people arrested by police had a mental health issue.

The audit office report also looked at the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

It found 36% of inmates were in contact with community mental health services at the time of entering prison between 2014 and 2018.

The report, Mental Health in the Criminal Justice System, has been published during Mental Health Awareness Week.

It states that the health system has found it increasingly difficult to deal with the growth in mental health needs across the general population.

As a result it found that the justice system was coming into contact with increasing numbers of people who have not had access to the health and social care services they need.

The report also noted that the current pattern of short-term custodial sentences are considered to be ineffective in treating and rehabilitating prisoners with mental health issues.

The audit office highlighted research by the probation board which showed that 42% of offenders have a mental health issue, and 72% have an emotional well-being issue.

Image caption Kieran Donnelly called for better co-ordination between the justice system and other government services

Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said that the justice system was having to deal with people who had fallen between the gaps of wider public service.

He said: "While the justice system is pursuing a range of reform measures to meet this challenge, the evidence to date suggests that more effective co-ordination is required between justice agencies and other key services, particularly health, education and housing services.

"That is why my report recommends stronger cross-departmental leadership, greater clarity and agreement between organisations on what the justice system can and hopes to achieve, and better recording of mental health issues and outcomes for individuals."

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