Unfortunately, many individuals with mental illness have encounters with the criminal justice system.  To help these individuals and those who support them, we have compiled resources in three sections:

Although the advice provided should be helpful, it is not legal advice.  It is important to obtain the services of a lawyer for someone who is in police custody. Try to prevent the police from questioning a family member with mental illness without a lawyer present.  The resources listed in the second section provide advice about how to find a lawyer, and the last section provides the contact information for Public Defenders in the Philadelphia region.

Preventing Arrest

The best way to avoid problems with the criminal justice system is to avoid arrest by arranging for ongoing and/or emergency treatment before the situation escalates to necessitate police involvement.  If you have concerns that a crisis may arise, it is helpful to notify the police in advance that a household includes a person with a severe mental illness, so the police can respond in an informed manner if an emergency arises.  The following paragraphs provide resources to help with both of these suggested approaches, as well as a resource to try to locate a missing loved one before they become involved with the police.

Treatment and Crisis Intervention

Obviously the best way to prevent arrest of an individual with mental illness is effective treatment to avoid a mental health crisis.  Programs such as assertive community treatment (PACT) can help to prevent mental health crises or relapse after a hospitalization. Many resources for finding treatment, including free or low-cost treatment, are available in “How to Get Government Services” (https://namimainlinepa.org/info-resources/how-to-get-services/) and “Introduction to Services for Individuals with Mental Illness and their Family Members In Southeastern Pennsylvania” (https://namimainlinepa.org/info-resources/intro-to-services/). For additional information, contact your local NAMI affiliate (http://www.nami.org) and/or your County Office of Behavioral Health or Mental Health.

For multiple resources to help you cope with a crisis, prepare for a crisis, and/or prevent a crisis, see https://namimainlinepa.org/resources-for-coping-with-preparing-for-and-preventing-a-crisis/.

Notifying First Responders That You or Your Family Member Has a Mental Illness before a Problem Arises

The Pennsylvania Premise Alert System provides families with a uniform method to alert first responders with information about persons who have mental illness. Knowing a person’s medical situation ahead of time can be important for quick and educated responses that increase safety and the likelihood that the person will receive appropriate treatment rather than arrest during a crisis.  Only legal guardians, those with Power of Attorney, or the person with the mental illness can complete the standardized form.  There is no fee.  Copies of the completed form should be given to the local police.  The information will be put into the 9-1-1 system for future use.  The information should be updated every year or two.  For a free copy of the form go to  http://www.papremisealert.com/.

Residents can download a similar form with instructions specific to Philadelphia.  This form also should be given to the local police. Go to https://www.phila.gov/media/20180827154712/PPD-ADARegistration.pdf.

The Vial of Life project provides important information for first responders when a person is unable to communicate this information.  Information about medications, copy of advance directive, etc. is put in the vial, and the vial and a Vial of Life decal are put on the refrigerator.  A second decal is placed on the front door.  Since this is not a wide-spread program in this area it’s probably a good idea to notify fire/police that you have this information available.  For a Vial of Life kit, go to http://vialoflife.com/?gclid=CJ_EkNvkkqECFd1n5QodrVJ_Mw.

Missing Persons

The National Missing and Unidentified Persons Database allows the general public to add new missing persons, add physical and circumstantial details, photographs, dental contacts and other critical pieces of information, create and print missing persons posters and track cases (https://www.namus.gov/MissingPersons/Search). Additional resources are available at www.outpostforhope.org and https://www.wehelpthemissing.org/; and additional advice is available at http://www.nami.org/missing.

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Criminal Justice System Procedures and Advice Relating to Individuals with Mental Illness

For a very informative discussion of the procedures and terminology of the criminal justice system, as well as much helpful advice, see A Guide to Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System (available at http://www.pacenterofexcellence.pitt.edu/documents/Guide_to_Mental_Illness_and_the_Criminal_Justice_System_NAMI.pdf)

Additional advice and information are available from:

A Few Key Points of Advice:

  • Get a good criminal lawyer as soon as possible. Try to prevent the police from questioning a suspect without a lawyer present. The police must stop questioning anyone who asks for a lawyer. If you cannot afford to pay the full fee for private lawyer, contact public defender services, court-appointed attorneys, or local criminal defense lawyer associations or bar associations (see resources below and in last section).
  • If a person with mental illness has been arrested, see the judge or call the district attorney and ask the court to make it a condition of bail or sentencing that the person must follow all treatment recommendations. This often helps to increase compliance with medications and other important treatments.
  • If a person with mental illness has been incarcerated, contact the prison, ask for the medical department, and give the person’s treatment history (often the place of last treatment is sufficient).

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Resources for People in the Philadelphia Metropolitan Area

If you or your loved one are about to have or have had an encounter with the police, you should seek resources in the county where the incident is occurring/has occurred (even if this is different from the county of residence).

Chester County

  • Crisis Line (for help in a mental health crisis; but call 911 if there is an immediate danger of physical harm) – 610-918-2100 or 877-918-2100
  • Mental Health Protocol, a program to provide mental health care for clients who are court-ordered to participate as a condition of probation/parole (http://www.chesco.org/index.aspx?NID=1136 )
  • Mental Health Recovery Court (to divert arrested offenders with mental illness from incarceration; see the brochure at http://www.chesco.org/DocumentCenter/Home/View/1291; accessed via the ADAPT program; call the Bail Agency, 610-344-6886, Chester County Mental Health, 610-344-6265, and/or Chester County Adult Probation and Parole, 610-344-6290
  • NAMI PA Chester County has prepared a very helpful booklet with a wealth of additional information (e.g. on the Mental Health Protocol which provides a way for an offender to receive treatment in the community where there are more resources available than in jail); NAMI PA Chester County can also provide additional information and support – 610-430-0177
  • Public Defender (free lawyers for low income criminal defendants) – 610-344-6940

Delaware County

  • Crisis Line (for help in a mental health crisis; but call 911 if there is an immediate danger of physical harm) – 855-889-7827
  • If a family member is incarcerated, contact the prison’s Mental Health Liaisons at 610-361-3237 or 610-361-3336. These liaisons connect incarcerated mentally ill individuals to mental health services while they are incarcerated and upon release.
  • Contact the County Office of Behavioral Health (610-713-2365) for information about available resources such as probation/parole officers specialized to help mentally ill offenders.  If an individual has a case manager, the case manager can help in accessing the available resources.
  • Public Defender (free lawyers for low income criminal defendants) – 610-891-4100
  • For additional information and support, contact NAMI PA, Delaware County – 610-623-0071

Montgomery County

  • Crisis Line (for help in a mental health crisis; but call 911 if there is an immediate danger of physical harm) – 855-634-HOPE (4673)
  • For crisis services for children and adolescents, call ACCESS – 888-435-7414.
  • Justice and Recovery Guide provides information about criminal justice and mental health systems in Montgomery County, including (1) law enforcement and emergency services, (2) initial detention and court hearing, (3) jail, court, forensic evaluation and hospitalization, (4) re-entry, (5) community corrections/community support. This guide is available at https://www.hopeworxinc.org/file_download/inline/b2b8ac56-8746-4017-8afe-cd2d774159a7 .
  • Montgomery County Emergency Services provides a “24/7” crisis line, jail diversion which can take place in the community before an arrest or after an individual is in police custody, psychiatric services for people in the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, initial involuntary psychiatric evaluations and inpatient treatment, and other services.  MCES is often able to divert individuals with mental illness from the criminal justice system to mental health services.  A full description of MCES services is available at http://www.mces.org/pages/cjs_services.php.  Contact them at 610-279-6100.
  • Montgomery County has a Behavioral Health Court to help defendants with serious mental illness to receive treatment in the community and receive appropriate sentences (http://www.montcopa.org/index.aspx?NID=385) – 610-278-3000.
  • Community Advocates for Montgomery County provides peer support to help individuals with mental illness navigate the criminal justice system and hopefully receive mental health services rather than be imprisoned – 610-270-0375
  • Public Defender (free lawyers for low income criminal defendants) – 610-278-3295
  • For additional information and support, contact NAMI PA, Montgomery County – 215-886-0350


For additional information and support, or to send comments, corrections or suggestions, contact us at 267-251-6240 or info@NAMIPAMainLine.org.

Revised: June 2022

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