U.S. Senate Confronts Criminalization of People with Mental Illness

Campaign For Mental Health Reform Commends Committee Members For Their Work

Jul 30 2003

Alexandria, VA - Our nation is failing an inordinate number of Americans with mental disorders who too often come into contact with the justice system because of a lack of appropriate services in the community, according to testimony by the Campaign for Mental Health Reform to be heard by a Senate committee today.

The Campaign will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on S. 1194, legislation introduced by Senator Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) to authorize funding for collaborative grant programs between mental health and justice systems aimed at avoiding incarceration of people with mental disorders. In its testimony, the collaboration of some of the nation’s leading advocates for people with mental illnesses applauds the Committee and the sponsors of the legislation for highlighting the need to address the growing number of people with mental illnesses in the criminal and juvenile justice systems.

"What the federal government can do – and what good legislation must do – is to provide support for a wide range of collaborative community programs to ensure that low-level offenders with mental illnesses avoid unnecessary detention and incarceration, and provide avenues for effective and appropriate treatment," according to testimony by Ron Honberg, Legal Director for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) and the Campaign’s representative at the hearing.

Approximately five percent of adults in America have a serious mental illness that significantly interferes with their daily functioning. In striking contrast, about 16 percent of the population in American prisons or jails has a mental illness. And over the course of a year, out of the ten million people who enter U.S. jails, nearly 700,000 of them have a serious mental illness. Yet, criminal and juvenile systems are ill equipped to properly handle the needs of people with mental illness.

Echoing recommendations offered in a report by the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health released last week, the Campaign voices its support for legislation to fund effective alternatives to incarcerating individuals with mental disorders who come in contact with the criminal or juvenile justice systems because of lack of community treatment programs. The Campaign also calls for the development of comprehensive programs to enable communities to provide appropriate services and supports at the earliest possible phase of the criminal process, preferably before booking or arraignment.

The Campaign applauds efforts by law enforcement officers, judges, prosecutors, state and local corrections officials, and others in the criminal justice community to promote collaborative state- and community-based solutions to the problems associated with adults and children with mental disorders who inappropriately come into contact with the criminal justice and juvenile justice systems.

S. 1194 authorizes funding for collaboration grants that could be used to create or expand a broad range of programs, including diversion, court-based and re-entry programs that offer effective mental health services, as well as programs to fund specialized training to personnel in criminal, juvenile justice and mental health agencies.