But many probation agencies lack specialized training or tools to supervise them effectively

Adults on probation—supervision imposed by the court generally in lieu of incarceration—are more than twice as likely to have a serious or moderate mental illness as those in the general public, according to analysis of federal data from 2015 to 2019 by The Pew Charitable Trusts. This translates into over 830,000 adults with a mental illness who are on probation at any given time each year, or almost a quarter of all those on probation. Most of these individuals also have a co-occurring substance use disorder, with the rate of adults on probation with both a mental illness and substance abuse disorder over five times that of adults in the public.

A recent survey of probation agencies nationwide conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) in partnership with Pew and the American Probation and Parole Association indicated that although agencies were aware that 20% to 25% of people under their supervision had mental health issues, most agencies did not have specialized mental health approaches and provided their officers with limited training related to mental health. Some officers who were interviewed said that they lacked the tools needed to successfully supervise people with a mental illness on probation, and that many people with a mental illness are placed on probation because other alternatives that don’t involve the justice system—such as diversion to treatment—aren’t being used or aren’t available.1

This lack of resources may be contributing to poorer criminal justice outcomes for people with a mental illness who are on probation, such as an increased likelihood of being arrested or going to prison.

Some of the research’s key findings:

  • People with a mental illness are more likely to be on probation than those without, and this disparity was even more pronounced for women and those with a co-occurring substance use disorder. Analysis of data from 2015 to 2019 showed that:
    • Almost 3.5% of adults with a mental illness were on probation annually, compared with 1.7% of all adults. Among adults with co-occurring disorders, 8.5% were on probation annually.
    • Women with a mental illness on probation were overrepresented relative to men. While 21% of all people on probation had a mental illness, the share of women on probation with a mental illness (31%) was almost twice that of men (16%).
  • Many people on probation with a mental illness have more criminal justice contacts than those on probation without a mental illness.
    • Adults with a mental illness who reported being on probation at some point during the year were more likely to be arrested during that year than those without a mental illness.
    • Individuals with a mental illness who were on probation were more likely to go to prison for a new offense or for violating probation terms than those without a mental illness.
    • Among people who were sent to prison from probation, those with a mental illness reported being arrested more often, going to prison more often, and being on probation more times than those without a mental illness.
  • Many probation agencies lack the tools to support officers in supervising people with a mental illness, such as specialized approaches, staff training, and flexibility in setting supervision conditions.
    • Among all responding agencies, 41% indicated they had a specialized mental health approach; among rural agencies, this dropped to 26%.
    • Approximately 42% of probation agencies do not require any mental health training for their probation officers with standard caseloads. For agencies with specialized mental health approaches, most require fewer than three days of mental health training, with 25% of agencies requiring no training at all.
    • While having a mental illness can create challenges in meeting the conditions of supervision, fewer than 1 in 4 agencies had discretion in setting supervision conditions or determining sanctions for probation violations for people with a mental illness.
    • Although agencies used various methods to identify whether a person on probation had a mental illness, fewer than 2 in 5 reported using a mental health-specific tool and only 29% of agencies tracked a person’s mental health status in their electronic case management system.