National Alliance on Mental Illness
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April 1, 2005

Senators Press for Funding Mental Illness Criminal Justice Programs

A bipartisan coalition of Senators and House members are pressing their colleagues to include funding in the FY 2006 budget for the Justice Department to support newly authorized programs to help local communities cope with the disturbing trend of "criminalization" of mental illness.  These programs were authorized last year as part of legislation -- known as the Mentally Ill Criminal Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act (P.L. 108-414) -- that was signed into law by President Bush last fall.  Under congressional rules, the authorization of a program into law is only the first step in the process and the actual appropriation of funds is required for the Justice Department to actually allocate resources.

Action Needed

Advocates are strongly encouraged to contact their Senators and urge them to sign on to a letter being circulated by Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) -- the lead Senate sponsor of P.L. 108-414 -- urging full funding ($50 million) for programs authorized under the law in FY 2006.  All Senate offices can be reached by calling 202-224-3121.

Please remind Senators of how important it is to address the growing and disturbing trend of "criminalization" of mental illness (individuals with mental illness falling into the criminal justice system as result of lack of access to treatment and community supports).  Remind them that:

  • P.L. 108-414 is a crime reduction program.Treatment and services are the best way to prevent involvement of juvenile and adults with serious mental illnesses with criminal justice systems.Most of these individuals are not serious, hardened criminals.Most have committed minor offenses that are a direct consequence of lack of treatment and services.
  • Jail diversion and community reentry services work.Research on existing programs show that they achieve remarkable results in reducing involvement with criminal justice systems and decreasing law enforcement and correctional expenditures on people with mental illnesses.
  • The programs authorized by P.L. 108-414 will enable law enforcement, criminal justice and court personnel to put more time and resources into fighting crime.The “Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act” recei?ved broad-based support from criminal justice organizations nationwide, because the programs funded through this act free up law enforcement and criminal justice systems to focus on preventing and fighting crime.
  • Many communities are already prepared to use these funds in a constructive and effective way.Criminal justice/mental health partnerships have been established in many communities to develop strategies for jail diversion, community reentry and other services designed to reduce unnecessary incarceration of non-violent offenders with mental illnesses.Many of these communities have plans in place to effectively utilize the resources available through P.L. 108-414 in a way that will benefit youth and adults with mental illnesses and the entire community alike.

Additional Background Information

The tragedy of the unnecessary "criminalization" of people with serious mental illnesses is today worse than ever.   On any given day, there are more people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and other serious mental illnesses incarcerated in large urban jails than in any psychiatric hospitals in the country.  The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that at least 16% of all jail and prison inmates in the country, more than 300,000 people, suffer from serious mental illnesses.  Many of these individuals also have co-occurring substance abuse disorders.   

The rates of serious mental illnesses among youth in juvenile justice systems is even higher – recent research reveals that one out of every five individuals in juvenile justice facilities suffers from a serious mental illness.  Many of these individuals also have substance abuse disorders.

At a time when state and local governments are struggling with unprecedented budget crises, a disproportionate amount of public resources are being used to respond to people with serious mental illnesses in criminal justice systems.  These resources would be better spent in developing and implementing treatment alternatives that would significantly reduce the number of people with serious mental illnesses who are entering or re-entering these systems.

Promising Alternatives are Emerging

Across the country, a number of innovative programs have been developed that have achieved remarkable successes in preventing or reducing criminal justice involvement of youth and adults with serious mental illnesses.  Some of these are designed to divert low level offenders from incarceration into treatment.  Others are designed to link people with the services they need when they are released from correctional systems so that they do not re-offend and reenter these systems.

For example, many communities have adopted police crisis intervention training (CIT) programs.  Modeled after the renowned Memphis program, these programs have proven effectiveness in reducing arrests, reducing injuries suffered by officers and individuals with mental illnesses, and producing positive treatment outcomes.  Additionally, more than 80 communities across the country have adopted specialized mental health courts to establish treatment alternatives for low level offenders with mental illnesses.  These courts have also been very successful.

For juveniles, Wrap Around Milwaukee, an award winning program featured in the report of President Bush’s New Freedom Commission, has been very successful in helping young people caught up or at risk of getting caught up in juvenile justice systems obtain the services and supports they need and thereby prevent their further involvement with these systems.  Other communities are working as well on developing alternatives to incarceration for youth.

Fostering Alternatives to Incarceration for Individuals with Serious Mental Illnesses

In October, 2004, President Bush signed into law P.L. 108-414, a bill designed to reduce the unnecessary criminalization of non-violent offenders with mental illnesses by creating treatment alternatives for these individuals.  P.L. 108-414 authorized $50 million for the U.S. Department of Justice to administer grants to states and local communities for a variety of purposes, including jail diversion, treatment for individuals with mental illnesses who are incarcerated, community reentry services, or cross-training of criminal justice, law enforcement and mental health personnel.  Unfortunately, the bill passed too late in the year to be funded in FY 2005.  Regardless, if this program is to achieve its desired purpose, it is critically important that Congress allocate the full $50 million for P.L. 108-414 in FY 2006.