President Clinton Signs Mental Health Courts Bill Into Law And Bills On Missing Adults And Citizenship Tests For Immigrants With Mental Disabilities
MENTAL HEALTH COURTS BILL
This past Monday, November 13, President Clinton signed into law landmark legislation (S. 1865) that establishes a national mental health courts demonstration program for nonviolent offenders with severe mental illnesses. Both the House and the Senate previously approved the mental health courts bill unanimously in the waning months of the current legislative session. A public law number has not yet been assigned.
The bill provides grants to states and municipalities to establish up to 100 mental health courts throughout the nation. The establishment of mental health courts has been one of NAMI's main advocacy strategies to address the stark reality that jails and prisons have become the nation's depository for people with severe mental illnesses. The U.S. Department of Justice reported in 1999 that 16% of all inmates in state and federal jails have a severe mental illness. The current rapid downsizing and closure of state psychiatric hospitals without the funding and implementation of evidenced-based community treatment programs has left people with severe mental illnesses with nowhere to turn to access needed treatment and services. In 1999, approximately 283,000 people with serious mental illnesses were in jail or prison - more than four times the number in state mental hospitals.
NAMI would like to extend its appreciation to President Clinton and his administration for supporting this initiative. NAMI would also like to congratulate Representative Ted Strickland (D-OH) and Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH), the lead sponsors of this bill, for their leadership in moving this measure forward toward final passage. In addition, NAMI would like to recognize the efforts of Representative Strickland and Senators Pete Domenici (R-NM), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), and Representatives Heather Wilson (R-NM), Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Steve Horn (R-CA), and Lois Capps (D-CA) for their efforts to push mental health courts as part of their mental illness treatment services enhancement bill (S 2639/HR 5091).
NAMI would also like to acknowledge the NAMI membership for their tireless commitment to this successful grassroots advocacy effort. All NAMI members and advocates should take pride in the passage of this legislation.
BACKGROUND ON MENTAL HEALTH COURTS LAW
The mental health courts law puts procedures in place to divert non-violent offenders with serious mental illness from jails and place them into appropriate community programs. The law authorizes appropriations of $10 million a year for fiscal years 2001 through 2004 for grants to states and municipalities to establish up to 100 programs across the nation to hear all cases involving individuals with severe mental illnesses charged with misdemeanors or non-violent felonies with the purpose of diverting as many of these cases as possible away from criminal incarceration into appropriate mental health treatment and services. Grant money would also be used to provide specialized training of law enforcement and judicial personnel to identify and address the unique needs people with serious mental illness that come into contact with the criminal justice system, and for the coordination of all mental health treatment plans and social services, including life skills training, such as housing placement, vocational training, education, job placement, health care, and relapse prevention for each participant who requires such services.
The mental health courts law directs the Attorney General to make these grants available to States, State courts, local courts, and units of local government acting directly or through agreements with other public or nonprofit entities through an application process to be determined by the Attorney General. The office of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice will develop and issue regulations determining the application process. As soon as the application regulations have been developed and made public, an announcement will be sent out over the NAMI E-News.
In 2001, NAMI will begin advocating for appropriations for this new program. Until Congress actually appropriates funds for these mental health courts demonstration programs, funding will not be available.
NEW PROGRAM FOR LOCATING MISSING ADULTS WITH MENTAL ILLNESS SIGNED INTO LAW (P.L. 106-468)
On November 9, President Clinton signed into law HR 2780, legislation to authorize the Justice Department to provide grants to organizations to assist families in locating missing adults. Specifically, these non profit grantees will be charged with developing a national tracking service for missing adults who are determined by law enforcement to be endangered as a result of "diminished mental capacity." The new law's definition of "diminished mental capacity" includes severe mental illness. The new program is modeled after the current Center for Missing and Exploited Children and will include new informational resources and referrals for families of missing adults. HR 2780, also known as "Kristen's Act," was sponsored by Representative Sue Myrick (R-NC) in response to the concerns of families who have struggled to find missing relatives. As with the mental health courts bill, this new federal missing adults clearinghouse system will not be operational until Congress appropriates necessary funds.
WAIVER OF NATURALIZATION OATH (P.L. 106-448)
On November 6, President Clinton signed legislation to resolve issues which in the past have prevented immigrants with severe mental illnesses from naturalizing because they are considered unable to take a meaningful oath of allegiance. This legislation, sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), allows the Attorney General to waive the oath of allegiance for people who are considered too disabled to understand or take a meaningful oath. This allows immigrants, such as a child or family member, who have met the criteria for naturalization in every other way not to be discriminated against solely due to a disability, including a severe mental illness.