This week, the U.S. Senate was presented with a report from a diverse coalition of individuals and organizations united in the goal of reducing unnecessary incarceration of people with mental illnesses. The report from the Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project ("Consensus Project") provides comprehensive and practical recommendations to state and local government officials concerned with the overrepresentation of people with mental illnesses in criminal justice systems. The report culminates a two-year effort coordinated by the Council of State Governments in collaboration with consumers, family members, victims advocates, and criminal justice experts.
NAMI advocates have known for many years that jails and prisons have become de-facto "psychiatric treatment facilities." On any given day, there are more than five times as many people with mental illnesses in jails and prisons than in psychiatric hospitals. Additionally, police have become front-line respondents to people with mental illnesses in crisis. While many police departments have responded with intensive training and progressive crisis intervention team programs, most police officers are not prepared to respond effectively to people in crisis. The consequences can be deadly.
The Consensus Project report identifies at least 23 discrete events on the criminal justice continuum - from initial calls to the police to release from prison - that can impact significantly on outcomes for people with mental illnesses. The report sets forth 46 recommendations to improve solutions and outcomes for these individuals.
The diverse group of stakeholders who participated in the Consensus Project agreed that there are four elements necessary to implement the report's recommendations.
The report also contains descriptions of innovative programs around the country to illustrate the benefits of effective cross-systems collaborations in reducing the unnecessary criminalization of people with mental illnesses.
While the report's substantive recommendations are important, its greatest value lies in the collaboration that led to consensus among the diverse group of participants. An influential group of police chiefs, corrections officials, prosecutors, judges, and politicians from both parties participated and agreed that improving treatment and reducing unnecessary incarceration of people with mental illnesses should be a national priority. The following quote from Robert K. Olson, Chief of the Minneapolis Police Department and President of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), illustrates this sentiment:
"Every day, police officials encounter individuals and situations in which untreated mental illness has resulted in behaviors that generate a citizen complaint or disorderly behavior," Chief Olson said. "My officers know we can better serve individuals with mental illness without risking public safety. This report shows police how to work with all stakeholders using models and principals they can tailor to their own community - approaches that will minimize the costs in human lives, dignity and police resources."
NAMI members in many parts of the country are already leading or working in coalition with criminal justice and mental health collaborators on jail diversion and community reentry initiatives. Successful collaborations have led to the establishment of police CIT programs, Mental Health Courts, and other innovative programs in St. Louis, Missouri, DeKalb County, Georgia, Salt Lake City, Utah, and many other communities. The awareness and interest generated by the Consensus Project will hopefully stimulate many more successful advocacy collaborations to de-criminalize people with mental illnesses.
The report's conclusions were presented in a hearing earlier this week before the Senate's Judiciary Committee. Witnesses at this hearing included Congressman Ted Strickland (D. Ohio); Chief Gary Margolis, Chief/Director of Police Services, University of Vermont; Marylou Sudders, Commissioner, Department of Mental Health, Commonwealth of Massachusetts; Captain John Caceci, Monroe County Jail, Rochester, New York; and Ken Mayfield, Commissioner, Dallas County, Texas, and President, National Association of Counties.
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have also been working on legislation to provide federal funding of services for individuals with mental illnesses diverted from jails or reentering the community after incarceration. We are hopeful that this legislation will be introduced shortly.
NAMI advocates Helen Geyso of Wisconsin, Tom Lane of Florida, and Risdon Slate of Florida were important participants in the Consensus Project. The Project's report can be accessed and downloaded from www.consensusproject.org.