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Pending Legislation Addresses Mental Health Treatment in Prisons

Pending Legislation Addresses Mental Health Treatment in Prisons

The Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act of 2003 (S1194/HR2387) now before the U.S. Congress authorizes $100 million in each of the next two years to foster collaboration between criminal justice and mental health programs at state and local levels.

Passed with bipartisan sponsorship and support in the Senate in October 2003, the House version of the bill is currently in committee in the House of Representatives. It would parcel out funds as seed grants, with matching state funds increasing over time, to joint applicants from criminal justice and mental health organizations. Initiatives eligible for funding include mental health courts that incorporate treatment components into sentencing; training programs for mental health and criminal justice personnel to improve recognition and responsiveness to mental illness in offenders; and programs that facilitate transition from incarceration to community and increase access to community-based mental health care.

The bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), who cited Bureau of Justice statistics indicating that approximately 16% of the population of state prisons have a mental illness (Beck and Maruschak, 2001), or three times the number of men and women with mental illness than are in mental health hospitals.

"Unfortunately, however," DeWine said on the Senate floor, "the reality of our criminal justice system is that jails and prisons do not provide a therapeutic environment for the mentally ill and are unlikely to do so anytime soon."

DeWine explained that offenders with mental illness are often preyed on by other inmates and are likely to become sicker in jail. After release, they have little capacity to access limited treatment resources and are likely, according to DeWine, to enter a revolving door of future offenses and incarceration.

The "Crime Reduction" portion of the bill's title reflects the intent to interrupt this revolving pattern, which DeWine characterized as "costly and disruptive for all involved." It is this component for which the bill was referred to the House's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.

Ill Institutions

DeWine told Senate colleagues, "Although these problems tend to manifest themselves primarily within the prison system, the root cause of our current situation is found in the mental health system and its failure to provide sufficient community-based treatment solutions."

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