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Senate Allocates Funds for Federal Mental Health Courts Program

Grassroots Action Requested


For Immediate Release, August 7, 2001
Contact: Chris Marshall
703-524-7600


As part of legislation covering the FY 2002 budget for the U.S. Department of Justice, the Senate Appropriations Committee has proposed allocating $5 million for a new program to support local "Mental Health Courts" to divert non-violent offenders with severe mental illness out of the criminal justice system. NAMI strongly supports this new federal Mental Health Courts program with full funding as part of next year's Justice Department budget.

Funding for the Mental Health Courts program is part of the FY 2002 Commerce-Justice-State Appropriations bill. While $5 million was included in the Senate version of this bill (S 1215), no funding was included in the House version (HR 2500). The Senate is expected to take up S 1215 shortly after Congress returns from its August recess the week of September 3. The House completed action on HR 2500 on July 19. NAMI supports not only the $5 million in the Senate bill, but also increasing that amount to the authorization level contained in the 2000 law that authorized this new federal program.(P.L. 106-515).

ACTION NEEDED

All NAMI members and advocates are urged to contact members of their state's congressional delegation to express support for full funding ($10 million) for the federal Mental Health Courts program as part of the Justice Department's FY 2002 budget (S 1215/HR 2500). All members of the Congress can be reached at their district offices during the August recess or at their Capitol Hill offices. All district contact information can be obtained by going to www.congress.org and contact information for members' Capitol Hill offices can be obtained by calling 202-224-3121 or by going to "Write to Congress" on the NAMI Web site at http://www.nami.org/policy.htm

Background on the Mental Health Courts Program

Congress first authorized the federal Mental Health Courts program as part of legislation passed in 2000 (P.L. 106-515). This bipartisan legislation was sponsored by Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) and the Representative Ted Strickland (D-OH). The establishment of mental health courts is rapidly emerging as one of the most successful strategies to address the stark reality that jails and prisons have become the nation's depository for people with severe mental illnesses. Mental health courts have already proven successful in Broward County, FL, King County, WA and other jurisdictions.

Mental health courts have been necessitated by the growing concern among judicial, law enforcement and corrections officials about the disturbing trend of persons with severe mental illness being inappropriately placed in jails for non-violent offenses.

What Are Mental Health Courts?

Congress passed America's Law Enforcement and Mental Health Project (P.L. 106-515) in 2000 in order to begin assisting states and communities across the nation in putting in place innovative approaches to diverting offenders into treatment programs and easing the growing burden on criminal justice and corrections systems. This new law authorizes the Justice Department to fund up to 100 such courts that involve:

1) continuing judicial supervision, including periodic review, over offenders with mental illness (or a co-occurring substance abuse disorder) who are charged with non-violent offenses, and

2) the coordinated delivery of services that includes: a) specialized training of law enforcement and judicial personnel to identify and address the unique needs of offenders with mentally illness, b) outpatient or inpatient treatment that carries with it the possibility of dismissal of charges or reduced sentencing upon successful completion of treatment; c) centralized case management involving the consolidation of all of a defendant's cases (including violations of probation), d) 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, and e) continuing supervision of treatment plan compliance and continuity of psychiatric care for up to the maximum term of sentence of the criminal offense.

NAMI Urges Full Funding of P.L. 106-515 in FY 2002

NAMI strongly supports funding for the new federal Mental Health Courts program as part of the FY 2002 Commerce-Justice-State Appropriations bill (S 1215/HR 2500). Mental health courts have proven effective in curbing the growing trend of "criminalization" of mental illness by giving courts and prosecutors the tools needed to divert offenders with severe mental illnesses into treatment programs, rather than jails. In NAMI's view, it is unconscionable that people with severe mental illnesses - legitimate medical conditions - who are not able to access appropriate treatment, are being imprisoned. In 2000, Congress took a major step forward in helping courts and criminal justice systems at the state and local level to provide access to appropriate treatment and services in the community for non-violent offenders when it passed P.L. 106-515. Now it must follow through and provide full funding in FY 2002.

Some Facts About Individuals with Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System

- People with serious mental illness are frequently arrested for minor offenses, many times as a result of homelessness, and then they are incarcerated in jails where their mental health needs are not met. There are also significant numbers of persons with serious mental illness who come in contact with the police, but are not arrested.

- The U.S. Department of Justice reported in 1999 that 16% of all inmates in state and federal jails have a severe mental illness. 283,000 people with serious mental illnesses were in jail or prison - more than four times the number in state mental hospitals. The average daily number of patients in state and county psychiatric hospitals has steadily dropped from 592,853 in 1950 to 71,619 in 1994.

- 40% of families of persons with mental illness reported that the individual had been arrested at some point in their lives.

- A recent Department of Justice report found more than three quarters of inmates with mental illness had at least one prior prison, jail, or probation term. Some individuals are incarcerated scores of times. Probation systems are also affected, as 16% of probationers were persons with mental illness. Steadman, H.J., Morris, S.M., Dennis, D.L., "The diversion of mentally ill persons from jails to community-based services: A profile of programs." American Journal of Public Health, 85, 1630-1635 and Steadman, H.J., Deane, M.W., Morrissey, J.P., Westcott, M.L., Salasin, S. and Shapiro, S., "A SAMHSA Research Initiative Assessing the Effectiveness of Jail Diversion Programs for Mentally Ill Persons." Psychiatric Services, 50, 1620-1630.

- Offenders with mental illnesses can place a heavy toll on the criminal justice system, draining significant police resources as these encounters may take a considerable amount of time.

- In most communities, officers face significant problems when they bring individuals to local community mental health programs. These programs may be reluctant to take the person due to reimbursement issues or previous history with the individual or due to drug and alcohol problems. Hospitals will accept persons deemed dangerous to self or others but only after lengthy assessments. As a result, police can spend hours waiting for resolution on a single case, and the person with mental illness often returns to the street almost immediately.

- When incarcerated, offenders with mental illnesses may present problems, particularly when they arrive in a disoriented or psychotic state. Once in jail, they remain longer than others with similar convictions. Often their condition deteriorates without appropriate treatment and issues concerning behavioral management arise.

- There is little planning when an inmate with a mental illness is released. People leave jail without supplies of needed medications, public benefits to pay their living costs or Medicaid for community-based mental health services. As a result, many simply recycle back into the criminal justice system.  


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