Mental illness in the eyes of the law: examining perceptions of stigma among judges and attorneys


In response to the increasing numbers of mentally ill persons placed under the care of correctional institutions, community-based diversion programs have been established to address the unique needs and challenges of this vulnerable population. Given that legal personnel may serve as gatekeepers in placement decisions, and the lack of existing research examining their attitudes toward offenders with mental illness, the present study aimed to evaluate perceptions of dangerousness and treatment need among a sample of judges, prosecutors, and public defenders across the state of Mississippi. While controlling for age, results of a factorial MANCOVA revealed that public defenders, relative to both judges and prosecutors, endorsed more compassionate attitudes about defendants with mental illnesses. Furthermore, political ideology did not significantly influence attitudes toward mentally ill offenders. While judges and prosecutors endorsed more negative stereotypes about mental illness and perceived mentally ill defendants as a greater risk to the community, mean scores across groups suggested moderately positive attitudes overall. Study limitations, implications for correctional mental health providers, and directions for future research are discussed.

Publication Title

Psychology, Crime and Law