Objective: This study examined incarceration rates of users of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) mental health services in 16 northeastern New York State counties between 1994 and 1997-a time of extensive bed closures in the VA system-to determine whether incarceration rates changed during this period.
Methods: Data were obtained for male patients who used inpatient and outpatient VA mental health services between 1994 and 1997 and for men incarcerated in local jails during this period. For comparison, services use and incarceration data were obtained for all men who received inpatient behavioral health care at community general hospitals and state mental hospitals between 1994 and 1996 in the same counties. Probabilistic population estimation, a novel statistical technique, was employed to evaluate the degree of overlap between clinical and incarceration populations without relying on person-specific identifiers.
Results: Of all male users of VA mental health services between 1994 and 1997, a total of 15.7 percent-39.6 percent of those age 18 to 39 years and 9.1 percent of those age 40 years and older-were incarcerated at some time during that period. Dual diagnosis patients had the highest rate of incarceration (25 percent), followed by patients with substance abuse problems only (21 percent) and those with mental health problems only (11 percent). The rate of incarceration among male patients hospitalized in VA facilities was lower than among men in general hospitals or state hospitals (11.6 percent, 23 percent, and 21.7 percent, respectively), but was not significantly different. No significant increase occurred in the annual rate of incarceration among VA patients from 1994 to 1997 (3.7 percent to 4 percent), despite extensive VA bed closures during these years.
Conclusions: Substantial proportions of mental health system users were incarcerated during the study period, especially younger men and those with both substance use and mental health disorders. Rates of incarceration were similar across health care systems. The closure of a substantial number of VA mental health inpatient beds did not seem to affect the rate of incarceration among VA service users.