Screening for mental health problems among criminals

May 16, 2016

WASHINGTON—This op ed about Rep. Doug Collins's (R-Ga.) Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act in the Washington Examiner on May 16, 2016.


The criminal justice system is overburdened with people who should receive mental health treatment instead of being incarcerated, according to an Air Force chaplain serving in Congress, and the federal government should be helping law enforcement make fundamental changes to resolve the problem.


"From my background as a pastor and as an attorney, I have seen the issues with mental health that are crowding our criminal justice system right now," said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., the House author of the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act.


"Law enforcement is very close to my heart," added Collins, whose father was a Georgia state trooper. "I've spent a lot of time with our sheriffs and going to our jails. One question I always ask is, 'How many in your jail would you classify as mental health or addiction issues?' The answer is that it ranges from about 35-40 percent of incarcerated individuals in some jails."


Nationally, that figure comes to an estimated 2 million people with mental illnesses booked into jail annually. To fix the problem, Collins' legislation would authorize the Department of Justice to distribute grants to facilities and programs aimed at identifying mental health victims and directing them to appropriate treatment


In addition to supporting mental health courts and crisis intervention teams, the legislation would support training for law enforcement.


"One of the things our bill does is emphasize training so that law enforcement officers can identify someone who may be going through a traumatic experience or have mental health issues. . . to see that someone is maybe acting a certain way with PTSD or something else, to look at that and have the tools they need to make a better decision in the field that cuts out the possibility of some of the very dangerous situations that arise," Collins said.


"We're looking at the whole issue, at folks dealing with serious mental issues, but also from an economic perspective, the money perspective, making the best use of taxpayer dollars to not just incarcerate folks without getting them help," he added.


"We don't have the money to just completely put it on the credit card, so there are issues of priorities and spending. But what this bill does is give authorization to prioritize. We're putting a priority on identifying mental illness and identifying these folks who need extra help, and also helping our law enforcement folks be better able to serve because they have better tools."


With 40 Republican and 57 Democratic cosponsors in the House, it seems likely the bill will make it to the president's desk this year. Its Senate counterpart, which was authored by Democratic Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, was approved by a bipartisan voice vote in December.


Collins said he was hopeful that it would have a positive impact, particularly on veterans, and that it would also help to address the national opioid epidemic.


"It's not only a short-term solution, but a long-term one," Collins said. "The problem's not going to be fixed overnight. We're laying the groundwork for the future to make sure federal, state and local law enforcement are able to better prepare and continue to get better at this as the years go by.


"This is going to continue to be a problem, especially from the military perspective, and from others ... not only some of the addiction issues, but other untreated mental health issues that fall through the cracks of the healthcare system."