How Can We Address Anti-Asian Hate? Let’s Start With Treatment, Not Jail.

Statistics have shown that incarceration for people with mental illness is ineffective and creates more crime.
Asian Americans gathered at Times Square to protest Asian Hate in New York City, New York, on March 16, 2023.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Asian Americans gathered at Times Square to protest Asian Hate in New York City, New York, on March 16, 2023.

In 2015, I was attacked by a person clearly in crisis who I later learned had been targeting Asians.

Yet, I still don’t wish jail on my attacker. Let me explain.

Anti-Asian hate has been an ongoing and traumatic component of the Asian American experience, and ugly rhetoric by public figures and the COVID-19 pandemic worsened this. Sadly, people with mental illness are sometimes vulnerable to such messaging and become unwitting conduits for the vitriol.

Yet, incarcerating perpetrators of this violence has only proven to create more crime, as those who cycle in and out of the chaotic and violent carceral system are traumatised and destabilised, disconnected from community support, and then re-arrested for more serious crimes. In addition, people with pre-existing diagnoses become sicker in jail, and some who entered the system without conditions, emerge with mental illnesses. Unsurprisingly, our jails and prisons house more people with mental illness than psychiatric hospitals.

For many of us harmed by violence, the most significant consideration after overcoming the initial shock is: If I meet this person again, will they hurt me? Like me, 75% of survivors know that we are far safer if the person who harmed us undergoes rigorous treatment and healing instead of being warehoused in destabilising carceral environments until their sentence has expired. At this time, they are less well and more likely to re-offend.

The communities I have served in my 29 years as a public defender reflect a statistical reality where one-in-five people have a serious mental illness. As a mental health specialist attorney working exclusively with people with such diagnoses, I have witnessed the futility of turning to incarceration when we should instead be addressing the underlying mental health concerns that bring someone into the criminal legal system in the first place. Under our current system, crime victims cannot be assured that our experience will not be repeated.

Psychiatric diagnoses should be treated as other medical diagnoses, yet stigma and fearmongering ensure that those showing symptoms of their illness are overpoliced and criminalised. Our default response to a person experiencing a mental health emergency results in their containment by law enforcement ― regardless of whether any threat of harm exists ― rather than seeking appropriate and effective avenues for healing and recovery.

Until we recognise that chronic instability informs criminal involvement and that the cumulative effect of our lapses makes individuals and communities unwell, we will continue to fail at safeguarding public safety. Moreover, without prioritising public health and legislating access to treatment, we miss crucial opportunities to address the basis of an individual’s involvement with our criminal legal system while significantly reducing their recidivism.

My own violent assault by someone in need of mental health treatment reflects this. The person who abruptly singled me out on a busy avenue and then hit me repeatedly with a heavy object had done the same to several Asian women in Manhattan. I later discovered that he came from poverty, had a traumatic childhood, and was pushed through a foster system that inflicted further harm on him. And although his psychiatric diagnosis was well-known during his multiple incarcerations, like so many who go without treatment, he slipped through the cracks without addressing his medical needs. He reportedly sought help but could not afford the medications prescribed to treat his serious mental illness. Tragically, he died by suicide without ever receiving the treatment that could have prevented his community violence and enabled him to live in health.

Victims of violent crime, when asked, overwhelmingly support treatment over jail. We understand that diversion has been shown to cut rearrest rates in half and that people charged with violent crimes are just as likely to succeed in treatment as anyone else. We reject the myth that people with mental health challenges are more violent than others or that the majority of violent crime is attributable to them: Instead, they are 10 times more likely to be the victim of violent crime and only account for 3-5% of these. We recognise that the media depiction of people with psychiatric diagnoses charged with violent crimes reflects individuals who have repeatedly experienced the trauma of prior incarcerations rather than treating their mental illness. We have learned that treatment is more effective and less costly than incarceration, grows employment rates, and even saves money that can be reinvested into our communities.

In New York, we support the Treatment Not Jail Act, which would legislate mental health courts and equitably address our mental health crisis and concerns about public safety. It remains pending, despite bipartisan and popular support. New Yorkers must demand passage of this bill, and those in states without similar laws should insist that your legislators enact these because ensuring healthy individuals and communities keeps everyone safe.

As a Filipina-American, I know that the path away from Anti-Asian hate is complicated and relies on acknowledging and openly addressing decades of xenophobic policies. Yet it is equally clear that incarceration is not the solution, especially when the person accused of committing the harm has unaddressed mental health issues.

We cannot continue to deny the shameful history of racism and discrimination against marginalised people of colour, which has resulted in our current crisis of Anti-Asian hate crimes amidst the overrepresentation of people with mental illness in our criminal legal system. The systemic lapses that have propagated rather than remedied generational poverty, trauma and inequities in access to housing, education, employment and health care have failed us all. We cannot continue to try and incarcerate our way out of hate and violence. We must instead focus on solutions that make individuals more resilient to messages of hate and fear because ensuring that our communities are healthy keeps all of us safe.