WASHINGTON — A five-year, multimillion dollar federal funding package to support the treatment of mentally ill inmates and ex-offenders at the state and local level passed into law as President Bush signed the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Reauthorization and Improvement Act.
The legislation provides $50 million in grants annually to state and local governments to create and expand mental health courts and support treatment and training programs for mentally ill offenders. The U.S. Senate unanimously passed the bill reauthorizing the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act of 2004 after its successful passage through the House of Representatives in September.
“I have witnessed the challenges associated with mentally ill offenders who are 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,” says Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), who co-sponsored the bill.
An additional $10 million would be allocated to crisis intervention training programs, which help law enforcement officers to identify and respond to individuals with mental illness.
“Sen. 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,” says Anthony Coley, a spokesperson for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts).
Senators Domenici and Kennedy proposed the legislation in 2007, in response to the increasing number of mentally ill offenders in the criminal justice system and the failure of the system to deliver appropriate mental health treatment and responses to prevent offenders engaging in recidivism after re-entry.
“His bipartisan bill provides strong federal support for helping local communities address this crisis and improve treatment outcomes for mentally ill offenders,” Coley says.
For several decades, the number of individuals with mental health issues coming into contact with the criminal justice system has increased, experts say. The mental illness rate among male inmates is four times that of men who are not incarcerated.
A study released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2006 reported a “high prevalence of mental health issues” among incarcerated populations. More than half of all inmates in the United States were found to have mental health problems.
At mid-year 2005, an estimated 705,600 state inmates (56 percent), 78,800 federal inmates (45 percent) and 479,900 local jail inmates (64 percent) reported mental health issues, according to the 2006 BJS report.
Previous estimates of mental illness among incarcerated populations range from 8 percent to 16 percent, according to the BJS.
A 1999 BJS report — the first comprehensive study of mental illness in correctional facilities conducted by the BJS — found 7 percent of federal inmates and 16 percent of inmates in state prisons and local jails or on probation reported having mental health issues or having an overnight stay in a mental health unit or treatment program.
At mid-year 1998, an estimated 283,800 mentally ill offenders were held in state and federal prisons and local jails, according to the 1999 report. An additional 547,800 mentally ill individuals were on probation.
The prevalence of mental disorders among female inmates in prisons and jails and among youth offenders in juvenile justice facilities is even higher, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates.
Approximately 75 percent of female inmates, compared to 63 percent of male inmates in local jails; 73 percent of females compared to 55 percent of males in state prisons; and 61 percent of females compared to 44 percent of males in federal prisons were found to have a serious mental illness, according to the BJS study.
The prevalence of mental illness among female inmates is eight times that of women who are not incarcerated, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
The 2006 BJS study, which was conducted between 2002 and 2004, found that mental health issues were primarily associated with a history of violence and past criminal activity.
Approximately 25 percent of inmates who reported mental health problems had been incarcerated on at least three previous occasions. An estimated 61 percent of state inmates and 44 percent of jail inmates with mental health problems also had a current or past violent offense.
Inmates with a mental illness also had high rates of substance dependence or abuse in the year before their admission, according to the BJS report. Approximately 75 percent of state and local jail inmates reported substance abuse or dependency.
About one in three state inmates, one in four federal inmates and one in six jail inmates with mental health problems received mental health treatment while incarcerated. Medication was the most common type of treatment.
The legislation would support development and operation of law enforcement reviewing centers to assess detainee and inmate needs in the areas of mental health and substance abuse treatment.
The Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Grant Program, created by legislation in 2004, would continue to promote collaboration between state and county criminal justice and mental health programs.
State and local governments would receive financial assistance to implement and expand programs designed to help mentally ill inmates and ex-offenders re-enter the community with treatment and support to overcome mental illness or substance abuse disorders.
Programs would include mental health courts, law enforcement training, mental health and substance abuse treatment for mentally ill inmates, community re-entry services and cross training of criminal justice and mental health personnel at the county and state level.