The House Judiciary Committee approved an APA-supported bill in November to
reauthorize a mental health courts program and improve services for mentally
The bill (HR 3992), sponsored by Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va.), would
reauthorize the mental health courts grant program through 2013. The grant
program is set to expire next year.
The legislation is needed, Scott said, because people with mental illness
have difficulty obtaining adequate treatment once incarcerated and they are at
high risk of suicide and victimization by other inmates.
The bill also would renew a grant program that funds treatment for inmates
with mental illness and training for law-enforcement officers who handle such
offenders. It would authorize a boost in the program's funding from $50
million in Fiscal 2008 to $75 million by Fiscal 2013.
"Even though there are offenders with mental illness who commit
serious crimes for which arrest, adjudication, and incarceration are entirely
appropriate, the majority of those with mental illnesses are those who are
incarcerated [for] low-level, nonviolent offenses, and they require a more
comprehensive approach than simple incarceration," said Scott at a March
hearing on the grant programs.
In response to the need for a treatment alternative for mentally ill,
nonviolent offenders, some state and local governments have implemented mental
health courts, a specialty-court model that uses a separate docket, coupled
with regular judicial supervision, to address infractions by people with
Scott's reauthorization legislation also would require the attorney general
to report on the rate of serious mental illness and homelessness among
individuals in custody.
The bill would give grant grants to programs that train law-enforcement
personnel in procedures to identify and appropriately respond to incidents in
which people with mental illness are involved. Grants also would fund
specialized receiving centers to assess individuals in the custody of
law-enforcement personnel for mental health and substance abuse treatment
A separate law-enforcement training program grant, created by the Omnibus
Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (PL 90-351), has been authorized
under current law at $50 million annually through Fiscal 2009, although
Congress provided only $5 million this fiscal year.
Local police forces have responded to the growing challenge of increased
interactions with criminal suspects thought to have mental illness by creating
up to 200 crisis-intervention teams nationwide, which are collaborations
between the law-enforcement and mental health systems.
The bill would also authorize an additional $35 million a year from Fiscal
2008 to Fiscal 2013 for new grant programs focusing on treatment of women
prisoners who are mentally ill; screening, identification, and assessment of
mentally ill inmates; and improved coordination of treatment and post-release
A separate $5 million annual grant program to provide treatment for women
inmates would offer them mental health care, intensive case-management
services, family-support services if they have children, and mental health
care for those children.
The need for the programs in the bill is based in part on Department of
Justice estimates that the majority of the 2.2 million people in U.S. jails
and prisons suffer from mental illness, and a high percentage are affected in
the juvenile-justice system. A survey by the Department of Justice in
September 2006 concluded that 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of
federal prisoners, and 64 percent of local jail inmates had "a mental
health problem," based on inmate self-reported symptoms rather than a
diagnosis of a mental illness.
Many of these individuals are not violent or habitual criminals. However,
their presence imposes substantial costs on that system and can result in
significant harm to those ill inmates, according to the bill's advocates.
"This large proportion of mentally ill persons in our jails and
prisons is part of a growing trend to transfer individuals who used to be
tracked for mental health treatment straight to jail," Scott said."
One problem contributing to this trend is the lack of programs that
train law enforcement to identify and properly handle offenders with mental
The House Judiciary Committee rejected, however, an amendment by Rep.
Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) to provide monetary incentives to law-enforcement
officers who enroll in training programs on how to deal with mentally ill
Although supporters of the bill are planning to introduce identical
legislation in the Senate, legislation (S 2304) with some similarities was
already introduced there by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.).
The mental health court legislation can be accessed at<http://thomas.loc.gov>
by searching on the bill numbers, HR 3992 and S 2304. ▪