AFT Resolution


WHEREAS, the criminal justice system in America is known to disproportionately affect disadvantaged populations, such as the poor, people of color, and those with mental illness; and

WHEREAS, the Olmstead Supreme Court decision of 1999 provided that the unjustified segregation of those with disabilities constitutes discrimination in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act; and

WHEREAS, people with mental illness have been found to lack or have disproportionate access to public health services and mental health treatment in the community, correctional facilities, community supervision, and other public spheres that provide mental health treatment; and

WHEREAS, mental health treatment is not an integral component of the correctional system, which has a criminal focus, and the current policies facilitate unfair and inadequate treatment of people with mental illnesses, which has contributed to significant disparities in those left behind through social exclusion, incarceration and recidivism; and

WHEREAS, over 50 years of failed mental health policies have placed law enforcement and first responders on the frontlines of a mental illness crisis, that has turned correctional facilities into mental health providers without appropriate and comprehensive mental health services or training; and

WHEREAS, the statistics on those suffering with mental illness becoming incarcerated in the criminal justice system due to an inadequate community-based mental health system are staggering:

  • The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but has 25 percent of the world’s prison population, largely due to the criminalization of people with mental illness;Three-quarters of inmates who have a serious mental illness also have co-occurring substance abuse disorders; and
  • The Council of State Governments reports that people with mental illnesses and co-occurring substance abuse disorders enter local jails 3-6 times more often than the general population; and
  • The Treatment Advocacy Center reports:
    • that 3.3 percent of the population or approximately 8.3 million adults have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder mental illness; and
    • that approximately 20 percent of inmates in jails and 15 percent of inmates in state prisons are estimated to have a serious mental illness; and
    • suicide is the leading cause of death in correctional facilities, and several studies indicate that as many as half of all inmate suicides are committed by the 15 to 20 percent of inmates with serious mental illness; and
  • The Department of Justice reports that 1 in 4 inmates in local jails is psychotic, and 10 percent of state prisoners have symptoms that meet the criteria for a psychotic disorder; and
  • The Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice reports a national recidivism rate of 77 percent, with re-arrests within five years; and mentally ill inmates remain in jail longer than other inmates, and account for a disproportionate amount of disciplinary infractions; and

WHEREAS, the incarceration rates in several states and countries that use alternative corrective policies that shift from punishment to treatment have reduced incarceration and recidivism rates, with approximately 240 prisoners per 100,000 residents (North Dakota), and 75 prisoners per 100,000 residents (Norway); and

WHEREAS, AFT Public Employees participated in the 2017 Public Services International World Congress, where delegates discussed putting “people over profits,” a unified fight against the privatization of public sector services that compromise quality services, including healthcare and mental health services for disadvantaged populations, including those with mental illnesses involved in the criminal justice system; and

WHEREAS, the identification of those left behind due to a vicious cycle of poverty, income inequality, and the exclusion of vital services that has persisted over the past several decades, is the focus of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; and

WHEREAS, collaboration of the criminal justice and behavioral health systems is essential to effectively reduce the criminalization of people with mental illness:

RESOLVED, that the American Federation of Teachers and its affiliates will support and advocate for a United Nations resolution—in conjunction with its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development—on inclusiveness that identifies the inappropriate incarceration of the mentally ill as a human rights issue, and a population that has been left behind; and

RESOLVED, that the AFT, and its affiliates will advocate and support policies and legislation that support the:

  • Diversion of the mentally ill to treatment instead of prison, including providing increased public investment in mental health services in the community, in jails and correctional facilities—including nurses, counselors, social workers and other mental health professionals—in order to treat inmates with mental illness in the least restrictive environment; and
  • Expansion of mental health and specialized courts, crisis-resolving centers, and specialized law enforcement response programs, including appropriate assessment tools to determine the level of programming and supervision needed to reduce those with mental illness from returning to the criminal justice system; and
  • Investment in comprehensive public services to support individuals with mental illnesses who intersect with the criminal justice system, and to assist in the reintegration into the community, including appropriate diversion programs; and
  • Examination of the criminalization of the mentally ill, and development of new corrective models that contribute to reduced recidivism, appropriate treatment in the least restrictive setting with the provision of services by trained public sector workers; and
  • Training law enforcement and first responders on identifying mental illness and appropriate intervention techniques; and

RESOLVED, that the AFT and its affiliates will support and advocate for the development of training curricula that combine criminal justice and behavioral health, to provide state and local leaders with resources for the development of mental health courts in a format that fits the needs of diverse jurisdictions; and

RESOLVED, that the AFT and its affiliates will support and advocate for the collaboration between the criminal justice system and behavioral health practitioners in hospitals and community-based programs, community advocacy organizations at the local and state levels to improve diversion to treatment, crisis intervention by law enforcement, specialty courts, community-based treatment, re-entry planning, supervision caseloads, and other approaches that will help reduce the incarceration of people with mental illnesses; and

RESOLVED, that the AFT and its affiliates will support member engagement efforts of providers in healthcare, mental health, education, judiciary, law enforcement, criminal justice, and community-based providers, in order to better respond and treat people with mental illnesses and to avoid intersection with the criminal justice system due to mental illness.


Please note that a newer resolution, or portion of a resolution, may have superseded an earlier resolution on the same subject. As a result, with the exception of resolutions adopted at our most recent AFT convention, resolutions do not necessarily reflect current AFT policies.