Justice and mental health collaboration bill ready for Senate floor

A bipartisan bill unanimously approved in June by the Senate Judiciary Committee would authorize the U.S. attorney general to award justice and mental health grants to improve mental health services for people who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

S. 162, sponsored by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) with 17 Democrats and 13 Republicans, would amend and extend the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act of 2004 to authorize $40 million per year for five years beginning in fiscal year 2015. Up to 20 percent of the funding would be authorized for veterans programs.

Some of the funds would go toward establishing and expanding veteran treatment courts, which involve collaboration among criminal justice, veterans, and mental health and substance abuse agencies. These courts provide qualified veterans with intensive judicial supervision and case management, treatment services, and alternatives to incarceration. Other services provided by the treatment courts include housing, transportation, job training, education and assistance obtaining benefits. In addition to veteran treatment court programs, the bill would fund peer-to-peer services to help veterans obtain treatment recovery, stabilization or rehabilitation.

Funds also may be used to provide services, including legal assistance, to mentally ill veterans who have been incarcerated, and for training programs for law enforcement and other professionals on how to identify and respond to incidents involving such veterans. 

The ABA, which supports the veteran treatment court provisions, has long recognized the special challenges faced by those experiencing mental health issues or related difficulties in the justice system.

In a July 19 letter to Franken, ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman emphasized that involvement in the justice system can disqualify veterans from the benefits they need to accomplish a successful transition from military service to a productive role in society. “When these federal benefits are lost, justice-involved veterans must rely on the availability of community services that are often at capacity or that are scarce due to shrinking municipal budgets,” he explained.

 “Veteran treatment courts, when properly implemented, can provide more intensive court and correctional supervision than existing court models, tapping into military culture and tools like peer-to-peer counseling to make lasting personal connections,” Susman he said.

Other grants in the bill would go to correctional facilities to help identify and screen inmates who need mental health and substance abuse treatment and develop post-release transition plans that coordinate services and public benefits for those inmates. Employees would be trained to handle inmates with mental health disorders or co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders.

 “We've been using our criminal justice system as a substitute for a well-functioning mental health system-we've sort of criminalized mental illness and addiction,” Franken said following the committee approval of the bill. “I'm pleased my legislation to make our communities safer and stronger by helping our justice and mental health systems work together is one step closer to becoming law.”

The legislation, supported by more than 240 organizations, was introduced as H.R. 401 in the House by Reps. Rich Nugent (R-Florida) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and 26 cosponsors. 

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