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President Bush Signs Mentally Ill Offender Treatment And Crime Reduction Act Of 2004

President Bush Signs Mentally Ill Offender Treatment
And Crime Reduction Act Of 2004

by Michael Rigby

On October 30, 2004, George W. Bush signed into law the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act of 2004 (Public Law No. 108-414). The Act provides $50 million in grant money to promote various criminal and juvenile justice programs aimed at keeping mentally ill offenders out of jails and prisons.

For mentally ill persons in the U.S., needless imprisonment sometimes becomes a way of life. All too often, people with mental illness rotate repeatedly between the criminal justice system and the streets of our communities, committing a [series] of minor offenses," said former Senator Tom Daschle in a statement attached to the bill. These offenders generally wind up in prisons or jails, where they receive little or no appropriate treatment, he said.

Not surprisingly, a 2003 Human Rights Watch report found that jails and prisons have become the Nation's default mental health system," said Daschle. [See PLN, September 2004, p. 24 for a review of that report.] The report's first recommendation, he said, was that Congress enact this bill.

Daschle went on to say that more than 16% of adults and roughly 20% of youths in the criminal and juvenile justice systems are mentally ill, and that up to 40% of mentally ill adults will be caught up in the criminal justice system at some point in their lives. But despite these alarming numbers, state and federal governments have done little to address the problem.

Under the Act, the Attorney General is charged with dispensing grant money to eligible State and local governments, Indian tribes, and organizations. The money is to be used for the planning and implementation of programs that ensure mentally ill adults and juveniles are provided access to treatment services. These programs must be overseen cooperatively with a criminal or juvenile justice agency, or a mental health court and a mental health agency.

In addition, the programs must specifically target nonviolent offenders who meet two requirements. First, the offender must be diagnosed with a mental illness or exhibit obvious signs of mental illness during arrest, confinement, or before a court. Second, the offender must have been criminally charged for an offense that resulted from their mental illness.

Programs eligible for grants include mental health courts and related court-based programs; specialized training programs for employees of criminal and juvenile justice agencies; cooperative efforts between criminal and juvenile justice agencies and mental health agencies that promote public safety by offering mental health and substance abuse treatment services; and collaborative efforts between State and local governments with regard to mentally ill offenders.

The Act further directs the Attorney General to develop a list of best practices for appropriate diversion from incarceration of adult and juvenile offenders.

The Act's aims are laudable, but the current effort is like fighting a forest fire with a garden hose-it just isn't enough. The Act originally authorized $100 million for fiscal year 2005, but funding was cut to $50 million before the bill passed. By contrast, many state prisons operate with budgets in the billions. Add to this the cost of operating jails and probation services and the numbers stagger. Human Rights Watch conservatively estimates that at least 300,000 prisoners are seriously mentally ill.

Lawmakers should realize that, as Daschle put it, a dollar spent today to get mentally ill offenders effective
medical care can save many dollars in law enforcement costs in the long run." It's also the right thing to do.

The current prison warehousing of the mentally ill is partially attributable to severe cut in federal funding to mental institutions in the early 1980's

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