By Paul McEnroe
Legislation that would strengthen mental health programs across the country is being blocked by two senators who believe that states should govern how mentally ill people are treated, said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., a chief co-sponsor of the bill.
Franken, who has made mental health legislation a centerpiece of his Senate work, declined to identify the reluctant senators, saying that the lawmakers are being heavily lobbied behind the scenes to move aside so the bill with bipartisan support can get a floor vote.
“There is pressure from law enforcement groups and attorneys from within his state for him to not block the bill,” Franken said of one of the senators during an interview earlier this week. “I think we’ll get there, but right now there is a hold on the bill.”
The two lawmakers who oppose the legislation are Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, according to two sources who spoke to the Star Tribune on condition of anonymity. Coburn, a physician, is often referred to as “Dr. No” by observers in Washington because he frequently votes against bills he views as unconstitutional.
Calls to Coburn’s and Lee’s offices for comment were not returned.
The bill authorizes $40 million to extend funding for mental health courts for five years, creates more crisis intervention teams to work closely with police, and offers veterans better screening for mental health problems stemming from trauma and chemical dependency.
Police academies would be able to strengthen training programs for new officers on effective responses to mentally ill people they encounter on the street, and increased screening services would be used to better evaluate the mental health of new inmates.
In June, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the bill by a voice vote, and it appeared to be headed for a successful floor vote. At the time, Franken and the bill’s sponsor in the House, Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Fla., were confident that the bill could be put to a floor vote without serious opposition.
At least 13 Republican senators signed on as sponsors of the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act, along with 14 of their counterparts in the House.
Stories from the street
Citing how the bill would fund more training for police officers confronted with mentally ill persons in crisis, Franken recalled a round-table conversation in August with officers from Columbia Heights.
When he asked officers to “give me your garden variety stories,” Franken said the officers, instead, gave startling accounts of their encounters with mentally ill people who could easily have been killed in standoffs were it not for an officer’s judgment honed by mental health training.
A female officer told Franken how she talked a woman out of committing suicide.
“She heard this woman screaming, threatening to jump from a railing,” Franken recounted. “The woman described being sexually abused, how the abuser left and had come back. The officer realized she was in a ‘mental health situation’ and used her training to talk her down. She promised she [would] get her the resources to address the real issue … and it worked. A few months later, the officer was working a street fair in Columbia Heights and she ran into the woman. The woman recognized the officer and said, ‘Thank you, you saved my life.’
“That’s the ‘garden variety story’ these officers can give you,” Franken said. “I was just blown away. That’s what crisis intervention and better police training does.”
Franken said the bill particularly recognizes that veterans with mental health issues should be accorded special consideration if they find themselves in the criminal justice system after committing a nonviolent crime.
“The signature wound from this war is PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and the medicating that these veterans do to themselves after what they’ve suffered,” Franken said. “When they are involved in a nonviolent crime, we should make sure that the judge, the prosecutor and defense attorney are aware of all the veteran’s mental health issues and provide the right services. They would be diverted to ‘Veterans Court’ and not a criminal court.”