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Mental Health and Safe Communities Act Introduced in the U.S. Senate

By the CSG Justice Center Staff

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX, pictured right) on August 5 introduced the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act of 2015, which enhances and reauthorizes programs that promote collaboration between federal, state and local criminal justice systems to improve responses to people with mental illnesses.

The comprehensive bill focuses additional resources on identifying people with mental illnesses who come into contact the criminal justice system and ensures that responses to these individuals are designed to improve outcomes and increase safety.

"Using our jails to warehouse people with mental illnesses not only burdens our judicial system and law enforcement officers, but it comes at a tremendous cost to our taxpayers," said Michael Lawlor, undersecretary of Connecticut's Criminal Justice Policy and Planning and chair of The Council of State Governments Justice Center. "But evidence-based alternatives do exist, and those innovative solutions are coming from our local communities. It's important that we make sure they are properly supported, and this bill does just that."

Jails across the nation annually serve an estimated 2 million people with serious mental illnesses, three-quarters of whom also have substance use disorders. The prevalence of people with serious mental illnesses in jails is three to six times higher than for the general population. Once incarcerated, these individuals tend to stay in jail longer, exacerbating their disorder and costing taxpayers more money. Jurisdictions across the nation are looking for help to improve the efficiency of law enforcement, courts, and corrections resources; to increase the likelihood that people in need are linked to effective supervision and treatment; and to make our communities safer.

The Mental Health and Safe Communities Act of 2015 is designed to improve outcomes for people with mental health disorders that come in contact with the criminal justice system through a number of actions, including:

  • The authorization of pretrial screening, assessment, and supervision programs to improve outcomes for people with mental illnesses by ensuring they are accurately diagnosed and receive appropriate need-based treatment that focuses on increasing public safety;
  • An increase in the use of treatment-based alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illnesses;
  • The establishment of a pilot program to determine the effectiveness of diverting eligible offenders from federal prosecution, federal probation, or a federal corrections facility, and placing those eligible people in drug or mental health courts;
  • Improvements to reentry programming for people with mental illnesses who are released into the community by authorizing the deployment of Forensic Assertive Community Treatment (FACT) Initiatives, which are designed to ensure that people with mental illnesses receive treatment-based interventions;
  • The expansion of specialized law enforcement crisis intervention teams, which respond to and de-escalate mental health crises for federal law enforcement personnel.

The Mental Health and Safe Communities Act of 2015 also includes reauthorization of the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act (MIOTCRA), an essential funding mechanism that supports the use of mental health courts and crisis intervention teams in local law enforcement agencies. The bill would extend MIOTCRA for an additional four years, effectively filling critical gaps in the system, including providing additional resources for veterans' treatment courts to help those suffering from behavioral or post-traumatic stress disorders. The bill also offers broader training during police academies and orientation as well as increased focus on prison- and jail-based transitional services and reentry programs that can help reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

The legislation has been endorsed by a variety of law enforcement and mental health organizations, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the American Correctional Association, the National Association of Police Organizations, the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, and the American Jail Association.


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