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 the 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: MentalIllnessPolicy.org
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
Pew Public Safety Performance Project - Excellent source for data-driven, fiscally sound policies and practices in the criminal and juvenile justice systems that protect public safety, hold offenders accountable, and control corrections costs.
Right on Crime - Prominent Conservative leaders working to make sensible and proven reforms to our criminal justice system - policies that will cut prison costs while keeping the public safe.
Heritage Foundation, Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies - Excellent source for Information about overcriminalization and its impact on American society.
American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) - Advocates solutions that refocus criminal justice resources on dangerous offenders and put the right programs in place to hold non-violent offenders accountable while providing them with the resources they need to become contributing members of society. The Justice Performance Project focuses on three key areas: Corrections and Reentry, Pretrial Release and Overcriminalization.
CATO Institute - Libertarian perspective on criminal laws and their impact on a free society
Justice Fellowship - The criminal justice reform arm of Prison Fellowship. JF works to reform the justice system to reflect traditional principles of restorative justice.
National Reentry Resource Center - Provides education, training, and technical assistance to states, tribes, territories, local governments, service providers, non-profit organizations, and corrections institutions working on prisoner reentry.
Vera Institute of Justice - Advocates criminal justice policies that promote fairness, protect public safety, and ensure that resources are used efficiently.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums - Advocates criminal sentences that are individualized, humane, and sufficient to impose fair punishment and protect public safety.
Sentencing Project - Works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.