National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Unlikely Allies in the Fight for Mental Health Services: Criminal Justice Leaders Speak Out

By Laura Usher, CIT Program Manager

Earlier this year, Florida’s legislature proposed over $100 million in cuts to mental health and substance abuse services. A coalition of mental health advocates working throughout the legislative session were able to reverse all the proposed budget cuts—and they got help from some unlikely allies.

“Each week during the legislative session, representatives from sheriffs’ departments across the state spend time in Tallahassee visiting with legislators,” explained Gail Cordial, executive director of the advocacy group Florida Partners in Crisis. “Legislators pay attention when they hear from local law enforcement. Often, it’s the first time that policymakers connect the dots between cuts in treatment to public safety and other costs such as hospitals, crisis units and courts.”

The success in Florida is just one example of a growing trend of criminal justice leaders standing up in support of mental health services. For many states and communities, these partnerships are a natural outgrowth of local criminal justice/mental health partnerships designed to divert people away from the justice system and into treatment, such as police crisis intervention teams (CIT) and mental health courts. Advocacy takes these local programs a step further by working to increase funding and access to services to help individuals get treatment to decreases the chances that they will become involved—or further involved—in the justice system.

Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio of the Summit County (Ohio) Juvenile Court explains why her court takes an interest in providing mental health services for children and youth who have not been charged with crimes: “No child should be labeled delinquent solely to access mental health services.” Instead of waiting for youth in need of services to get arrested for acting out, the juvenile court works with schools and families to identify youth at risk and connect them with services well before they have trouble with the law. This proactive approach, in addition to case management programs to provide services to youth who are under court supervision, has dramatically reduced juvenile detention rates. It’s no surprise that the court can prevent juvenile detention by offering mental health treatment: research shows that 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system live with a mental health condition. Many families report that getting arrested is the only way their child can access needed services.

Teodosio says that judges can give advocacy efforts a boost by bringing a wide range of groups to the table. “Judges are in a position to bring the various mental health agencies of the community together along with law enforcement, the prosecutor, the defense bar, children, families and advocacy groups.” These criminal justice professionals can be powerful allies when advocating to change laws or stop budget cuts, says Angela Kimball, NAMI’s director of state policy. “Legislators are extremely interested in promoting public safety, so they seek out and respect the opinions of criminal justice leaders like judges and sheriffs.”

Kate Farinholt, executive director of NAMI Maryland, emphasizes the importance of cultivating relationships with all the people she comes in contact with through local and statewide criminal justice projects. “Get these people in your database. Invite them to participate in Mental Illness Awareness Week, NAMIWalks and other events. Send them your advocacy alerts, invite them to be a board member, ask them to help you fundraise. Most importantly, ask them to spread the word about NAMI with their personal as well as professional networks.” Over time these relationship can bear fruit. Farinholt cites an example of the public relations officer at a local police department who worked with her to get media attention for police training. He later joined NAMI Maryland’s public policy committee and now works in the Governor’s office, where he’s a powerful ally on a variety of mental health issues.

Maintaining relationships with criminal justice leaders, says Farinholt, can also raise the profile of the NAMI State Organization or NAMI Affiliate. “Our criminal justice contacts have connected us with networks of government agencies, emergency responders, veterans and many other groups. NAMI Maryland is becoming the go-to organization on mental health issues.”

Other advocates agree with Farinholt’s approach. NAMI Indiana, for example, recently hosted its ninth annual conference entirely for criminal justice professionals. The conference offers continuing education credits for professionals and creates an opportunity for NAMI Indiana to reach a diverse group of influential community leaders. Pam McConey, executive director of NAMI Indiana, says the open dialogue at the conference provides her with insights into the inner workings of the criminal justice system and helps her identify where NAMI Indiana’s advocacy can make a difference.

Cordial, in Florida, says that a key part of their strategy was keeping criminal justice leaders involved in her organization, and finding ways to participate in events hosted by the criminal justice community. After working together, advocates and criminal justice professionals agree that individuals living with mental illness don’t belong in prison or jail, they need treatment.

In a telling example of how just how valuable these partnerships can be, Col. Jim Previtera of the Hillsborough County (Fla.) jail recently testified at a rally in the Florida Capitol that cuts to mental health don’t save money and only mask a growing problem. “The adverse outcomes of [budget cuts] with regard to mental health and substance may not be visible to them hidden behind jail walls, but there will be a day when persons most impacted by the legislature’s actions walk from our gates—back into their communities, and into all our communities—still in need of mental health and substance abuse treatment denied by endless cuts today.”

For NAMI State Organizations and Affiliates seeking to broaden their impact, consider reaching out the criminal justice community.

Download these tools and resources to to help address the lack of services in your community. Under “Grassroots Advocacy Tools," you’ll find fact sheets on the array of services needed for both youth and adults. Visit NAMI’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Center for more information on criminal justice/mental health partnerships.