Government News
Mental Health Courts Bill Targets Multiple Problems
Psychiatric News
Volume 42 Number 24 page 12-12

The House Judiciary Committee approved an APA-supported bill in November to reauthorize a mental health courts program and improve services for mentally ill prisoners.

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 mental illness.

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 problems.

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 services.

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 illness."

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 offenders.

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.

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