Jails are no substitute for a mental health system

Jails are no substitute for a mental health system
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A few years back, a 60-year-old woman named Sarah decided to walk into a local police department near Durham, N.C. She had been living in her car, outside of an abandoned theater, for about five years at that point, and when she got to the station, she was highly agitated and showing signs of mental illness. But because the Durham Police Department had a program in place to help people like Sarah, the chief of the department was able to refer her to trained officers who connected her with the right services to get her help.

Because of this program, Sarah’s life improved dramatically. She was referred to a nonprofit that placed her in stable housing; she got services from the city’s mental health agency to address her untreated trauma; and she ultimately reconnected with her family. When asked to speak at an event honoring the officers who worked with her, Sarah said, “Thank you for saving my life. Without you, I wouldn’t be here today.”

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But unfortunately, Sarah’s story is an outlier. Far too often, our criminal justice system fails at effectively helping people with mental illness, instead locking them up in jails or prisons in conditions that often make their problems worse. People with mental illness are over-represented in the criminal justice system, and we hear regularly from the law enforcement community and our constituents that we are in a state of crisis. Reliable estimates show that about 30 percent of inmates under county supervision have mental health conditions. The Los Angeles County Jail system, the Cook County Jail in Chicago, and Rikers Island in New York City each hold more people with mental illness on any given day than any hospital in the U.S.

Using our criminal justice system as a substitute for a fully functioning mental health system doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense for law enforcement officers, who often put their lives at risk when they are called upon to intervene in a mental health crisis. It doesn’t make sense for courts, which are inundated with cases involving people with mental illness. It doesn’t make sense for people who have mental health conditions, who often would benefit more from treatment and intensive supervision. And it certainly doesn’t make sense for taxpayers, who foot the bill for high incarceration costs and overcrowded corrections facilities, and who must pay again when these untreated mentally ill prisoners are released back into society, often in worse shape than when they were locked up.

To address this crisis, we recently introduced bipartisan legislation, the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act of 2015, with a group of our House and Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle. In the Senate, the bill currently has 22 co-sponsors, including nine Republicans and 13 Democrats. In the House there are 24 co-sponsors: 12 Republicans and 12 Democrats.

Our bipartisan legislation will address this issue by improving access to mental health services for people who come into contact with the criminal justice system, and by providing law enforcement officers the tools they need to identify and respond to mental health issues in the community. It continues support for mental health courts and crisis intervention teams, both of which save lives and money. It authorizes investments in veterans treatment courts, which serve arrested veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, substance addiction and other mental health conditions.

The bill also supports the development of programs to train law enforcement officers in how to recognize and respond appropriately to mental health crises. And it increases the focus on corrections-based programs, like transitional services that reduce recidivism rates and screening practices that identify inmates with mental health conditions.

We must end the revolving door for offenders with mental illness. An estimated 2 million people with serious mental illnesses are booked into jails each year. By focusing our efforts on this population, we have an opportunity to address overcrowding in our correctional facilities and to stop using jails and prisons as a substitute for a properly functioning mental health system. 

Passing this legislation is critically important. Just this month, our bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. We are pleased that it’s one step closer to becoming law, and we urge our colleagues to join us in working to get this bill passed and addressing the current crisis.

Franken is Minnesota’s junior senator, serving since 2009. He sits on the Energy and Natural Resources; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Indian Affairs; and Judiciary committees. Collins has represented Georgia’s 9th Congressional District since 2013. He sits on the Rules and the Judiciary committees.