Government News
Congress OKs Funding for Mentally Ill in Justice System
Psychiatric News
Volume 43 Number 22 page 10-10

A law funding federal grant programs to help people with mental illness who become entangled with law enforcement was reauthorized and expanded for five years in October.

The measure came up short of APA's goal for this legislation, which was to increase funds for the law's existing programs, but it did add $10 million to train police how to recognize and respond appropriately to situations involving mentally ill persons.

Moreoever, the law requires the Justice Department to report the rate of serious mental illness among people in custody or on parole and the rate of those who are eligible to receive Supplemental Security Income benefits.

"The existing grant program has been useful, and now we will build on it by providing resources to help law enforcement and the courts better understand how to address and handle the problems and situations posed by defendants who have mental health problems," said Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the bill's sponsor, in a written statement.

The measure is titled the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Reauthorization and Improvement Act (S 2304, PL 110-416). Other members of Congress who led the effort for its passage included Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.).

Other grants are earmarked for creating "specialized receiving centers" to assess the mental health requirements and suicide risk of recently arrested people, computerized information systems to improve police response to likely mentally ill suspects, and programs to train campus security personnel to identify and respond appropriately to incidents in which individuals thought to be mentally ill are involved.

One of the programs that the law reauthorizes provides federal grants to states and local communities for jail-diversion initiatives, community-reentry services, and other efforts to address the needs of people with serious mental illness and cooccurring substance use disorders who are accused of nonviolent offenses. The law also reauthorizes support for preincarceration programs that provide counselor intervention for individuals with mental illness.

Jail-diversion programs employ mental health professionals to screen new nonviolent detainees for mental disorders and offer treatment-based alternatives to incarceration.

"Mental health courts are not a panacea for addressing the needs of the growing number of people with mental illnesses who come in contact with the criminal justice system," Domenici said. "But they should be one part of the solution."

The 2004 law authorized spending up to $50 million per year for Fiscal 2006 and Fiscal 2007, but only $5 million was actually provided in each of those years.

Advocates of the measure fought to increase the annual funding level to $75 million through 2014, but they failed to garner enough support for the higher number; thus, annual funding limits remain at $50 million. Advocates must still seek allocation of funds—up to their full authorized levels—through the federal budget process.

The need for the reauthorization and expansion of the law was described in a House committee report that cited Justice Department statistics from 2006 that identified likely mental illness in 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners, and 64 percent of local jail inmates.

In addition, research findings have shown that state prisoners with a mental health problem are twice as likely as those without a psychiatric condition to have been homeless in the year before their arrest, according to the legislation.

"Many of these individuals are not violent or habitual criminals," said Domenici in a speech on the Senate floor. "Most have been charged or convicted of nonviolent crimes that are a direct consequence of not having received needed treatment and supportive services for their mental illness."

On any given day, at least 284,000 seriously mentally ill people are incarcerated, while just 187,000 such individuals are in mental health facilities, said Scott in a 2007 hearing on the legislation.

"Jails and prisons require extra staffing and treatment resources for inmates with mental illness," said Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.).

Supporters of the measure said that communities that have taken advantage of past grants have seen their mental health and criminal justice systems work collaboratively on solutions and have achieved a considerable impact in fostering recovery, improving treatment outcomes, and decreasing recidivism.

The measure passed over the objections of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who said that the law would duplicate other sources of funding for mentally ill prisoners. It ultimately passed by a simple voice vote.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the law will cost about $565 million through 2014.

The text of the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Reauthorization and Improvement Act can be accessed at<http://thomas.loc.gov> by searching on the bill number, S 2304.

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