Laying out his agenda for Congress this election year, Speaker Paul Ryan highlighted both mental health and criminal justice reform as areas where he expected to see legislation passed.
Reforms currently being discussed in both areas would have a profound impact on the way the country treats people with severe mental illness.
Ryan highlighted two bills that focus on reforming our broken system to better serve people with severe mental illness, noting that both already enjoy strong bipartisan agreement:
•The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, introduced by Representatives Tim Murphy (R-PA) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), focuses on mental health reform for those with severe mental illness and their families who are struggling to get necessary care for their loved ones. The legislation advanced out of the House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee markup in November with all provisions intact to help people with severe psychiatric illnesses.
•The Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act of 2015, introduced by Representatives Doug Collins (R-GA) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) would increase CIT and other training for law enforcement on how to appropriately respond to incidents involving people with mental illness, provide support for mental health courts and expand data collection on the criminalization of mental illness. The legislation passed this week out of the House Judiciary Committee. The Senate companion bill of the same name passed out of the Senate by voice vote in December.
“The combination of effective mental health and criminal justice reform holds the potential of finally addressing our nation’s longstanding mental health failures,” Ryan said. “For too long, our nation’s mental health system has failed those in need, leaving law enforcement to pick up the pieces. As a consequence, our jails have become de facto psychiatric facilities. It is inhumane, ineffective and too often ends in tragedy.”
Portsmouth Police Chief Robert Ware has been advocating for the restoration of mental health service across the country.
“I’ve said it before, law enforcement is often the first contact with someone in crisis,” Ware said. “Not all encounters can be de-escalated. When techniques fail, the result is often a violent encounter. Sometimes those violent encounters have ugly outcomes. We cannot continue to ignore this critical issue facing our communities.”
Ware said many of the people in prisons and jails have mental health conditions. He said the treatment of those conditions greatly increases the costs of housing the incarcerated. Ware went on to say many of the people in our drug treatment centers are considered to have a dual diagnosis. Not only are they drug dependent, but they suffer from mental illness.
“Just look at the incidents of shootings, drug addiction, alcoholism, and suicides,” Ware told the Daily Times in a recent interview. “Much can be attributed to someone in a mental health crisis or suffering from underlying mental health conditions that are treatable. The true costs to society is astronomical.”
each Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.