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June 6, 2003

NAMI Applauds Visionary Bill to Reduce Criminalization of Mental Illness

Your Advocacy is Needed to Achieve Passage!

As public resources for treatment and services for individuals with mental illnesses shrink, the use of adult jails and prisons and juvenile justice facilities as de-facto "psychiatric treatment programs" grows. On June 5, 2003, identical bills were introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to reverse this disturbing and shameful trend. The "Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act of 2003" would authorize new federal funds for jail diversion programs for adults with serious mental illnesses and juveniles with serious emotional disturbances, treatment programs for individuals who are incarcerated, and services to aid people transitioning back into the community.

The Senate bill (S. 1194) was introduced by Senator Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and co-sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico). The House bill (HR 2387) was introduced by Representative Ted Strickland (D-Ohio). The collaboration between Senator DeWine and Representative Strickland is the continuation of a partnership that first occurred when the two worked together to pass federal legislation authorizing Mental Health Courts in 2000.

The "Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act of 2003" would authorize $100 million to establish a grant program at the U.S. Department of Justice that can be used by states and communities to:

* Create jail diversion programs;

* Provide treatment to adults with serious mental illness and juveniles with serious emotional disturbance who are  incarcerated;

* Fund cross-training of criminal justice, law enforcement, court and mental health personnel; and

* Provide mental health services to individuals with serious mental illnesses upon reentry into the community.

In recognition that programs authorized by this bill will require extensive cooperation among agencies, providers and stakeholders, S. 1194 and HR 2387 requires successful applicants for grants to demonstrate the involvement of multiple stakeholders, including mental health, criminal or juvenile justice agencies, consumers, family members, and others in all planning and implementation activities.

At a press conference announcing introduction of this bill, Tom Lane, Director of NAMI’s Office of Consumer Affairs, spoke about how the services available through this legislation could have helped him. "Five years ago, I was in crisis, suicidal, and in desperate need of access to mental health services," Lane explained. "I got a law enforcement response, not a mental health response. What I needed was help from the mental health system, not entanglement with the criminal justice system. There simply were no alternatives available at that time. This bill will create alternatives."

ACTION NEEDED:

Additional sponsors are needed for both the Senate and House bills – as many as possible. Therefore, please contact your U.S. Senators and your Congressman or Congresswoman and urge them to co-sponsor S. 1194 or HR 2387. If you are a constituent of Senators DeWine, Leahy, Grassley, Cantwell, or Domenici, please contact them and thank them for their leadership. Please urge your friends to make these calls as well. All Senators and House members can be reached by calling the Capitol Switchboard toll free at 1-800-839-5276 or at 202-224-3121 or contact them online now at www.nami.org.

Talking Points:

When urging your Senator(s) and Representative to support S 1194/HR 2387, you may consider making the following points.

* More than 16% of adults incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons have a mental illness, and approximately 20 % of youth in juvenile justice systems have serious mental illnesses. A significant number of these individuals have co-occurring mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders. Most of these individuals are not hardened or violent criminals but rather have committed minor offenses that are a direct consequence of lack of treatment and services.

* The provision of treatment, rehabilitation, and support services have proven effectiveness in preventing additional criminal justice involvement and reducing recidivism among low-level offenders with mental illnesses or co-occurring mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders.

* Targeting resources for jail diversion, mental health/substance treatment, and community reentry services ultimately frees up law enforcement and criminal justice personnel to focus on preventing and fighting crime rather than responding to adults or juveniles with mental illnesses in crisis.

* Collaborations among mental health, substance abuse, law enforcement, criminal justice, consumers, and family members are already in place in many communities and have shown to be the most effective way to respond to the needs of adults with serious mental illnesses and juveniles with serious emotional disturbances in adult and juvenile corrections facilities, while reducing criminal behaviors among these individuals.

Questions about S. 1194 or HR 2387 should be directed to Ron Honberg, RonH@nami.org, or Andrew Sperling, Andrew@nami.org.

Thank you for your advocacy in support of this important legislation!

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