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Michael Petruzzelli

, National Council for Behavioral Health

Senate Approves Bipartisan Criminal Justice, Mental Health Bill

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On Friday, the Senate quietly approved bipartisan criminal justice and mental health related legislation. The Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act (S. 993/H.R.1854) – introduced by Senator Al Franken (D-MN) and Representative Doug Collins (R-GA) – primarily reauthorizes and improves the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act (MIOTCRA) of 2004. The bill aims to make communities safer across the country by improving access to mental health services for people in the criminal justice system who need treatment.

The legislation would also:

  • Continue support for mental health courts and crisis intervention teams;
  • Expand treatment services to veterans including: treatment court programs, peer to peer services, appropriate services to veterans who have been incarcerated, and training programs for criminal justice, law enforcement and corrections personnel to identify and respond to incidents involving veterans with a mental health condition;
  • Make grants to provide broader training to law enforcement officials on how to identify and respond to incidents involving persons with mental health disorders;
  • Increase focus on prison and jail-based programs; and
  • Create programs that offer federal first responders and tactical units comprehensive training in procedures to identify and respond appropriately to incidents involving mentally ill individuals.

One day before the passage of this bill, Linda Rosenberg, president and CEO of the National Council, called for ending the criminalization of mental illness. In an editorial in the Huffington Post, Rosenberg emphasized treatment over incarceration in keeping offenders healthy and out of the criminal justice system.

“Health providers who can offer a range of prevention and treatment to improve health and reduce recidivism better serve nonviolent offenders living with mental illness or addiction in their communities,” she said. “Intensive interventions such as assertive community treatment, residential substance use care, comprehensive case management, medication-assisted treatment, and others can help keep offenders healthy and out of trouble.”

“Our criminal justice system is broken—it doesn’t help treat people who have mental illnesses, and it doesn’t protect the safety of law enforcement personnel,” said Senator Franken. “The United States has five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. And that’s in large part because we have criminalized mental illness, using our justice system as a substitute for a fully functioning mental health system. That’s a huge problem, and my Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act would help fix it.”

The Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act (S. 993/H.R.1854) now awaits approval in the House. However, with multiple criminal justice and mental health reform initiatives on Capitol Hill, it is difficult to forecast when a vote on this particular legislation would occur in the House.