New Bi-Partisan Bill Addresses Mental Health in Criminal Justice System

By KBJR News 1

January 9, 2013 Updated Jan 10, 2013 at 11:13 PM CDT

Duluth, MN (NNCNOW.com) - U.S. Senator Al Franken says he recognizes the need for early intervention, particularly when it comes to addressing children's mental health.

"When kids with mental health issues are treated early, they are no more violent than the general population," said the Junior U.S. Senator.

But the immediate issue, says Franken, is improving the outlook for mentally ill offenders already facing criminal charges. Hennepin County jail reports indicate mentally ill people who are incarcerated have a significant chance of re–offending.

Senator Franken says the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act, which has been in the works for over a year, would work to find a long–term solution.

Reports show that the U.S. houses 25% of the world's prisoners at an annual average cost of $41,000 per inmate. A New York City report shows that a post–booking jail diversion program for mentally ill offenders saved about $6,000 per inmate.

"What we can do is do interventions on these folks, and maybe do an intervention that doesn't involve going to prison. What we've found is it saves money, but more importantly it has a better outcome," said Franken.

In short, the bill would continue and expand support for mental health courts and crisis intervention teams, and fund additional training that would help prepare police for a myriad of possibilities. Current HIPAA laws prevent police from knowing, among other things, if a call they're responding to involves people with mental health issues.

"It's very important that police have the training when they go into a situation to recognize that they may be dealing with someone with mental illness, and what that means," said Franken.

The bill would also invest in veterans' treatment courts, which serve arrested vets suffering from depression, addiction and PTSD. It's promising news, say officials with the Duluth branch of the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans. They report 62.5% of their clients in the past year alone have had mental health issues.

"It may be mild depression up to a full–fledged case of serious Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," said MACV Duluth Regional Director Steve Saari.

But according to Saari, for some veterans, addressing the problem only reinforces it.

"They're very reluctant to go get help for it because they feel like they're not going to be able to get a job. [They think] 'Nobody's going to hire me,' or 'I'm going to be known as one of those crazy veterans.' That's a problem," said Saari.

Senator Franken plans to introduce the bill to the Senate at the end of the month.

Speaking of veterans, MACV will be hosting a free drop–in legal clinic for veterans Thursday at the Depot's Great Hall. The clinic will run from 9 AM to 2 PM.

- Posted to the Web by Billy Wagness