As is often the case, legislatures and the Congress are hurrying to catch up to the practitioners. This time it’s the law trying to catch up to what’s going on in the courts concerning the mentally ill who are incarcerated. In state after state from Texas to Washington state to North Carolina to Florida to Connecticut the courts are taking action to reduce the number of mentally ill sent to jail and to prisons. Nation-wide about 20% of the population in jails and prisons are mentally Ill who have committed no violent crimes.
“The American Psychiatric Association [APA] applauds recent Congressional efforts to acknowledge and improve treatment for the large number of people with mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders who are currently incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons.”
According to a 2006 report by the United States Department of Justice [DOJ], entitled “Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates” more than half the population incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails-including 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners and 64 percent of local jail inmates-were found to have a mental illness. Many of these inmates suffer from treatable disorders such as major depression, bipolar disorder and substance abuse disorder.
On November 13, the U.S. House of Representatives passed, by a vote of 347 to 62, the Second Chance Act, legislation sponsored by Congressman Danny Davis [D-Ill.]. The legislation would provide transitional assistance to ex-offenders in an effort to reduce recidivism.
Additionally, the legislation would extend and provide a full continuum of care for treatment of substance abuse disorders. The legislation also seeks to improve mental health screening and treatment and provides grants for family treatment programs. In August, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved similar legislation, sponsored by Senator Joseph Biden Jr. [D-Del].
The Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Reauthorization and Improvement Act [H.R. 3992 and S.2304] aims to improve services for mentally ill prisoners by reauthorizing and boosting funding for a grant program that provides treatment for inmates and training for law enforcement officers who treat them. The House bill is sponsored by Representative Robert Scott [D-VA] and the Senate Bill is sponsored by Senators Edward Kennedy [D-Mass] and Pete Domenici [R-NM]]. On November 7, the House Judiciary Committee passed H.R. 3992, which will now go to the full House for a vote. On November 5, the Senate introduced S. 2304.
When Florida’s Broward County officials a decade ago decided it was both unjust and outrageously expensive to steer nonviolent mentally ill defendants into jails and prisons, they got creative.
They began one of the nation’s first mental- health courts to divert people suffering from mental illness into treatment programs. It’s a plan similar to one that an advisory council on criminal justice and mental health hopes to see in place in the Tallahassee area soon.
“For years, many mentally ill Floridians without the means to obtain proper treatment have gotten into trouble and ended up in our county jails or state prisons. Until recently, lawmakers have looked the other way.
Some of Florida’s jails are little more than psychiatric warehouses offering unhappy doses of human misery. But that should change if the Legislature approves a smart and ambitious plan to help current inmates re-enter society and help other mentally sick people avoid ever darkening the prison doorway.”
On November 14, Chief Justice Fred Lewis of the Florida Supreme Court hosted an unprecedented forum among state leaders to unveil a plan to improve the state’s mental health system and to better coordinate services provided to people with mental illnesses, including those involved with the criminal justice system.
Governor Crist spoke at the event: ”We have a responsibility to support and care for the most vulnerable among us, and at the same time, ensure the safety of our communities while also being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”
Good luck to those who have to implement the plan, from one who helped develop such a plan in Oregon in the 1970s and was one of four who were responsible for its implementation. It wasn’t easy and it took a lot out of all four of us. Florida being somewhat larger and more complicated will be even more difficult. Again, good luck.
AMERICAN PSYCHIATRIC ASSOCIATION, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/89196.php
CONSENSUS PROJECT NEWSLETTER, December, 2007
TALLAHASSEE.DEMOCRAT, www.tallahassee.com November 19, 2007
THE TAMPA TRIBUNE, Treat Mentally Ill Lawbreakers Instead of Warehousing Them, November 20, 2007