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Ashley Freeman

Behavioral Health Policy and Practice Intern

Senate Committee Holds Mental Health, Criminal Justice Hearing

February 18, 2016 | Justice | Comments
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Last Wednesday, mental health advocates and state and local criminal justice officials testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee calling for improvements in the way the justice system addresses those living with mental illness. The hearing focused largely on Senator John Cornyn’s (R-TX) criminal justice and mental health reform bill – the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act (S. 2002) which aims to ensure that individuals with mental illness are receiving proper treatment as opposed to cycling through the criminal justice system. Although no vote has been scheduled, Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) made clear the Committee’s intentions to take up this bill in the future.

The Mental Health and Safe Communities Act (S. 2002) would:

  • Support the use and growth of mental health courts and crisis intervention teams;
  • Authorize pre-trial screening, assessment, and supervision programs for mentally ill offenders;
  • Increase the use of treatment-based alternatives to incarceration; and
  • Provide resources to improve re-entry programming for mentally ill offenders who are released back into the community.

“People with mental health conditions disproportionately are arrested and incarcerated,” said Senator Al Franken (D-MN). “We don’t provide people who suffer from a mental illness with the care, community support, or housing assistance that could help them avert a crisis. We don’t provide them with treatment. Instead, we let them fall through the cracks and languish in prison.”

Pete Earley, a mental health advocate on the witness panel, is the father of Kevin Earley, a young man who has bipolar disorder. In his testimony, Mr. Earley emphasized the importance of training law enforcement officials on how best to approach individuals experiencing mental health crises. Earley shared that when his son was approached by a crisis intervention trained officer during a mental health crisis, he was treated with respect and received treatment as opposed to being diverted to the throngs of the criminal justice system. Today, Kevin is continuing treatment with a community psychiatrist and serves as a peer-to-peer trainer to help other individuals living with mental illness.

A second panelist, Bexar County Sheriff, Susan Pamerleau, provided a firsthand report on the success her county has seen in San Antonio, TX.

“Prior to 2009, our mental health deputies had to use physical force, on average, at least 50 times per year taking mental health consumers into custody. Since that time, in more than six years, force has only had to be used three times,” she said in her testimony. “The difference between 300 times and three times in six years is dramatic, and proves the value of Crisis Intervention Training. The Mental Health Court, created in October 2009, has shown success in reducing recidivism rates 17 points better than those not in the program, since its inception.”

The Mental Health and Safe Communities Act (S. 2002) has encountered opposition from some advocacy groups due to its provisions around restoring gun purchasing rights for certain individuals with mental illness who have been previously reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The context of the hearing did not focus on these provisions.

Panelists for this hearing included: Pete Earley, Author, Mental Health Advocate; Dr. Fred Osher, Director Of Health Systems And Services Policy, Council of State Governments Justice Center; Sheriff Susan L. Pamerleau, Bexar County Sheriff, William Ward, State Public Defender, State of Minnesota Board of Public Defense; W. David Guice, Commissioner, Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice – North Carolina Department of Public Safety.