December 01, 2015

Senate passes justice and mental health bill

The Senate passed a bill Dec. 10 that would improve access to mental health services for those in the criminal justice system who need treatment.

S. 993, sponsored by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and a bipartisan group of more that 30 cosponsors, would authorize $18 million each year for four years to support efforts to increase public safety by facilitating collaboration among the criminal justice, juvenile justice, veterans treatment services, mental health treatment, and substance abuse systems.

“The United States has five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population,” Franken pointed out, explaining that the United States in large part has criminalized mental illness “using the justice system as a substitute for a fully functioning mental health system.” 

“My bill bolsters federal support for mental health services − including special support for veterans who need help − and provides critical training to law enforcement,” he explained.   

Grants in the bill to correctional facilities would help to identify and screen inmates who need mental health and substance abuse treatment and to 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.

Up to 28 percent of the funds may go toward establishing and expanding veterans treatment courts, which involve collaboration among criminal justice, veterans, and mental health and substance abuse agencies to 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 veterans 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 correspondence to Franken during the 113th Congress, 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.

“Veterans 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,” he said.

The legislation is now ready for consideration in the House, where an identical bill, H.R. 1854, has been introduced by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and 70 cosponsors.

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