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Public Statements

Kennedy in Support of Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Legislation


Location: Washington, DC


United States Senate Judiciary Committee Executive Meeting

(As Prepared for Delivery)

Mr. Chairman, it was a privilege to join my colleague from New Mexico, Senator Domenici, in introducing the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Reauthorization and Improvement Act, and I'm very pleased that we have the strong support of Chairman Leahy and Ranking Member Specter. We all agree that this legislation will promote cooperative initiatives that will significantly reduce recidivism and improve treatment outcomes for these offenders.

The House of Representatives passed the bill on January 23rd with unanimous support, and I hope we'll have the same progress in the Senate. It's bipartisan, bicameral legislation to authorize continued federal support for cooperation between the criminal justice and mental health systems on alternatives to jail, correctional treatment, and community reentry of offenders with a mental illness, and cross-training of criminal justice and mental health personnel. With full funding, this proposal has the potential to achieve significant reforms in the treatment of offenders diagnosed with a mental illness.

Based on the most recent studies by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem in 2005, including 56% of inmates in state prisons, 45% of federal prisoners, and 64% of jail inmates. The high rate of symptoms of mental illness among jail inmates may reflect the role of local jails in the criminal justice system that operate as locally-run correctional facilities and receive offenders pending arraignment, trial, conviction or sentencing. Local jails also hold mentally ill persons pending their relocation in appropriate mental health facilities.

Far too often, these individuals encounter the criminal justice system when what is really needed is treatment and support for mental illness. Desperate families often resort to the police to obtain treatment for a loved one suffering from an extreme episode of mental illness. When the distress is extreme, families have no other alternative, because persons with symptoms such as paranoia, exaggerated actions or impaired judgment may be unable to recognize the need for treatment.

Most mentally ill offenders who come into contact with the criminal justice system are charged with low-level, non-violent crimes. Once behind bars, however, they may well face conditions that exacerbate their mental illness, even though it could have been managed with proper treatment. Caught in this revolving door, they may soon be back in prison as a result of insufficient and inadequate services when they were released.

Our bill reauthorizes critical programs to move away from troubled systems that lead to the escalating incarceration of individuals with mental illness. Under this legislation, state and local correctional facilities will be able to create appropriate, cost-effective solutions. And low-level, non-violent mentally ill offenders will have greater access to continuity of care.

Congress must do its part to assist state and local governments in meeting this burden. Too often, the current system fails to meet constitutional safeguards, or fails to dedicate resources effectively so that people will get help instead of jail time. As a result of state budget cuts, more and more communities are looking to the federal government for support.

In every state, interactions between law enforcement and individuals suffering from mental illness continue to rise and the need for effective solutions is critical. This legislation will continue to foster local collaborations between law enforcement and mental health providers. Since what works in one community will not necessarily work or be desired in another, solutions must take into account the existing problem as well as the social and political dynamics within each community. With so many complex issues involved at the intersection of mental illness and the criminal justice system, no magic solution will solve the problems faced by communities across America. But, this bill will fund the kind of specialized programs that will most effectively address the needs of these communities. With this legislation, Congress will be continuing its commitment to support local communities in responding to this problem.

As just one example, in my home state of Massachusetts, Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Schiebel has initiated a community partnership between area law enforcement, human service and health care providers, along with judiciary and advocacy groups for persons with mental illness. This proactive initiative has been pivotal in efforts to promote best practice responses to mental health crisis events. The program has also expanded its reach to help soldiers returning from battle to cope with the adjustments back to civilian life. A first-of-its-kind initiative, the program's goal is to keep distressed veterans out of the criminal justice system, while giving them the tools to put their lives back together.

Across the state, under the leadership of District Attorney William Keating, the Norfolk District Attorney's Office has developed a prebooking mental health jail diversion program in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, the Weymouth Police Department, the South Shore Mental Health Crisis Intervention Team, the Quincy Mental Health Center and the Quincy Interfaith Coalition. The goals of the program are to reduce involvement of mentally ill individuals in the criminal justice system; improve the quality of the lives of mentally ill individuals; reduce recidivism; improve public safety, and reduce costs associated with involvement in the criminal justice system and unnecessary emergency room visits. With the passage of this legislation, this collaboration could seek further federal assistance to reach its future goals of expanding the program across the region and developing "in service" police training on mental health issues, as well as producing a Police Pocket Guide for all police officers and dispatchers to keep on hand for reference. Through these efforts, our local prosecutors can work with the Courts to improve information sharing and develop strategies to improving the lives of mentally ill individuals, reduce recidivism, increase public safety, and reduce costs associated with involvement in the criminal justice system and unnecessary emergency room visits.

In addition, members of state and local law enforcement need access to training and other alternatives to improve safety and responsiveness. The bill reauthorizes the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment Program and increases the funding to $75 million a year. The legislation also authorizes $10 million for grants to States and local governments to train law enforcement personnel on procedures to identify and respond more appropriately to persons with mental illnesses and to develop specialized receiving centers to assess individuals in custody.

In his final public bill signing in 1963, President Kennedy approved a $3 billion authorization bill to create a national network of community mental health facilities across the country. But with the escalation of the Vietnam War, not one penny of the $3 billion was ever appropriated. Now, nearly half a century later, we face a crisis in which far too many persons with mental illness are facing jail time, not treatment.

The broad support for this legislation - including 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 - demonstrates that it will provide much-needed support to help solve this complex problem. The courts, law enforcement, corrections and mental health communities have all come together in support of this legislation, and Congress should respond.

Individuals and their loved ones struggle with countless challenges and barriers during a mental health crisis. With this bill, Congress will authorize significant support for cooperative efforts between law enforcement and mental health experts. I urge my colleagues to approve this important legislation, so that we can achieve its enactment as soon as possible.

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