One of the most vexing problems over the last 40 years has been the large number of non-dangerous mentally ill persons trapped in the criminal justice system. This is not 477px-VanGogh_1887_Selbstbildnis_kvad_Nonethe fault of law enforcement. It is the policy makers who haven’t funded community treatment for the mentally ill. These people don’t belong in jails and prisons – they are sick, not bad. But police and sheriffs operate the default mental health system.
But I have good news. The movement to treat the non-dangerous mentally ill in community facilities rather than jails is making real progress. The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the COMPREHENSIVE JUSTICE AND MENTAL HEALTH ACT (S 993) sponsored by Senators Franken and Cornyn.
This important legislation would:
• continue support for mental health courts and crisis intervention teams, and extend the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act (MIOTCRA);
• fund veterans treatment courts, which serve arrested veterans who suffer from PTSD, substance addiction, and other mental health conditions;
• support state and local efforts to identify people with mental health conditions at each step in the criminal justice system so that they are placed in appropriate mental health services at the earliest point possible;
• increase focus on in-prison programs, such as transitional services, that reduce recidivism rates and screening practices that identify inmates with mental health conditions;
• support the development of curricula for police academies and orientations to teach recruits to identify those with mental illness and handle them appropriately; and
• train federal law enforcement officers in how to respond appropriately to incidents involving a person with a mental health condition.
A parallel effort to deincarcerate the mentally ill has been launched by the Council of State Governments and the National Association of Counties. Called “Stepping Up: A National Initiative to Reduce the Number of People with Mental Illnesses in Jails” the project calls on states and counties to convene working groups to develop and implement strategies to treat mentally ill persons outside of the criminal justice system. These convenings will be followed by a National Summit to create a national consensus behind successful programs in the states. The Summit will be held in the Spring of 2016 in Washington, D.C.
Resources on treating mental illness
Comprehensive website on Mental Illness and policy options for providing proper care for mentally ill persons:
Excellent PBS segment on Mentally Ill in Jails
Joint study by the National Sheriff’s Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center: Treatment Advocacy Center Study Reveals Severely Mentally Ill Persons More Likely to be in California Jails than Hospitals. Link to the study.
New York Times story: “Jails Have Become Warehouses for the Poor, Ill and Addicted, a Report Says”
Joint Study by the National Sheriff’s Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center: “Justifiable Homicides: What is the Role of Mental Illness?” Link to the study.
CNN’s Jake Tapper interviews Rep. Tim Murphy on the “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act”. Murphy Describes Mental Health System as “embarrassing” and “immoral”.
U.S. News story: “Counties Examine Police Training in Encounters with Mentally Ill. Local initiatives aim to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails.”
New York Times Editorial ($): Keeping the Mentally Ill Out of Jail