Bill For Mentally Ill To Go Before Bush For Signing

This story was written by Jessica Sacco, Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The House of Representatives passed the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Reauthorization and Improvement Act last Weds. The act will help provide money to help mentally ill individuals.Senators Edward Kennedy and Peter Domenici introduced the proposal in 2007, when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, an original co-sponsor with Senator Arlen Specter, worked to have the bill approved by the Judiciary Committee in March. Legislation had been pending in the Senate since April.The bill authorizes $50 million in grants to help state and local governments create or expand mental health courts as well as treatment and training programs to help address the needs of mentally ill offenders to reduce repeat offenses. An additional $10 million is authorized to teach law enforcement officers and agents to recognize and react to situations involving mentally ill individuals."Senator Kennedy understands that far too often individuals are arrested and subjected to the criminal justice system when what they really need is treatment and support to overcome mental illness or substance abuse disorders. His bipartisan bill provides strong federal support for helping local communities address this crisis and improve treatment outcomes for mentally ill offenders," said Anthony Coley, spokesman for Senator Kennedy. "He commends Senator Domenici for his leadership on this bill and on so many other initiatives to improve our nation's mental health system.According to a study conducted in 2006 by the Justice of Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than half of all prison and jail inmates were found to have a mental health problem. This includes 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners and 64 percent of local jail inmates.The findings are represented based on a survey of prison and jail inmates' recent history or symptoms of mental disorders that occurred in the last year as opposed to an official diagnosis of mental illness.

Female inmates were seen to have a higher rate of mental health problems than men. However, overall, these problems (for both men and women) were primarily associated with violence and past criminal activity."I have witnessed the challenges associated with mentally ill offenders who are a part of the criminal justice system, and I believe resources are necessary to help local law enforcement and the judicial system implement appropriate measures to address these offenders," Domenici said.Christopher Overtree, director of Psychological Services Center at theUniversity of Massachusetts, believes that this bill is an example of the growing awareness in communities and government that the needs of the mentally ill have often been ignored and that it is time to focus on providing more effective and comprehensive mental health services."There has long been a level of disconnect between the needs of the mentally ill, and the ability of the legal system to provide appropriate services," said Overtree. "This law enables police officers to receive the training they need to respond more appropriately to mentally ill offenders, referring them to appropriate services that may be more effective than the legal system in bringing about a positive change for the individual and justice in our society. Often, it is these first moments that can mark the difference in outcome for a mentally-ill offender. As first-responders, law enforcement officials are better equipped to protect public safety when they are well trained."The next step is for the bill to be sent to the president. Pending his approval, it will be passed as a law.