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Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Reauthorization and Improvement Act of 2008

Floor Speech

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC


MENTALLY ILL OFFENDER TREATMENT AND CRIME REDUCTION REAUTHORIZATION AND IMPROVEMENT ACT OF 2008 -- (Senate - September 26, 2008)

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, it is a privilege to join my colleague from New Mexico, Senator Domenici, in strongly supporting Senate passage of S. 2304, the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Reauthorization and Improvement Act of 2008. This bicameral, bipartisan legislation demonstrates strong Federal support for helping local communities address the current crisis in which far too many persons with mental illness are subjected to incarceration, not treatment. With full funding, this proposal has the potential to achieve significant reforms in the criminal justice system's treatment of people diagnosed with mental illness.

I commend Senator Domenici for his leadership on this bill and on many other initiatives to improve our Nation's mental health system. I also commend the leadership of Representatives Bobby Scott and Forbes in the House of Representatives on this issue. This important legislation will promote cooperative initiatives that will significantly reduce recidivism and improve treatment outcomes for mentally ill offenders.

Based on the most recent studies by the Bureau of Justice, more than half of all prison and jail inmates in 2005 had a mental health problem, including 56 percent of inmates in State prisons, 45 percent of Federal prisoners, and 64 percent of jail inmates. According to a report by the Council of State Governments' Criminal Justice-Mental Health Consensus Project, the rate of mental illness in State prisons and jails is at least three times the rate in the general population, and at least three-quarters of those incarcerated have a substance abuse disorder.

Far too often, individuals are subjected to the criminal justice system, when what is really needed is treatment and support for mental illness or substance abuse disorders. Families often resort in desperation to the police in order to obtain treatment and assistance for a loved one suffering from an extreme episode of a mental illness. During times of such distress, families feel they have no other alternative because persons with symptoms such as paranoia, exaggerated actions, or impaired judgment are unable to recognize the need for treatment.

It is unconscionable, and may well be unconstitutional, for these vulnerable individuals to be further marginalized after they are incarcerated. Too often they are denied even minimal treatment because of inadequate resources. Most mentally ill offenders who come into contact with the criminal justice system are charged with low-level, nonviolent crimes. Once behind bars, they may well face an environment that further exacerbates symptoms of mental illness that might otherwise be manageable with proper treatment, and they may soon be back in prison as a result of insufficient and inadequate services when they are released.

This bill reauthorizes critical programs to move away from troubled systems that often result in the escalating incarceration of individuals with mental illness. Through this legislation, State and local correctional facilities will be able to create appropriate, cost-effective solutions. In particular, I am very supportive of the crisis intervention teams that many communities have developed to expand cooperation between the mental health system and law enforcement. These teams have been very effective in enabling officers to spend less time arresting mentally ill individuals and more time directing them toward treatment. I also support the continued expansion of mental health courts, so that defendants can be placed into judicially supervised community-based treatment programs, which often result in better outcomes and reduced recidivism.

To date, we have seen only a fraction of the possible potential of this legislation, because only a small number of communities have been able to benefit from this legislation. Because of limited Federal funding, only 11 percent of applicants have been able to receive one of these grants, even though demand for them is high. No magic solution will solve the problems faced by communities across America. But this bill will effectively address local needs by fostering greater cooperation between law enforcement and mental health providers.

In addition, members of State and local law enforcement need access to training and other alternatives to improve safety and responsiveness. It reauthorizes the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment Program and maintains its authorized funding at $50 million a year. The legislation also authorizes grants to States and local governments to train law enforcement personnel on procedures to identify and respond more appropriately to persons with mental illness, and develop specialized receiving centers to assess individuals in custody.

The broad support for this legislation includes the Council of State Governments, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the National Sheriffs Association, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the Campaign for Mental Health Reform and Mental Health America. These organizations understand it will provide much needed assistance to help solve this complex problem. Courts, law enforcement, corrections and mental health communities have all come together in support of this legislation, and Congress is right to respond.

Individuals and their loved ones struggle with countless challenges and barriers during a mental health crisis. With this bill, Congress will be providing significant new support for needed cooperative efforts between law enforcement and mental health experts. I am pleased that the Senate supports this legislation, and I am optimistic it will be enacted before the end of this current session of Congress.


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