By Ashleigh Fryer, CSG Justice Center Staff
From watching his son struggle with bi-polar disorder, to witnessing the treatment of the 1,200 individuals with mental disorders in a Miami-Dade County jail, journalist and author Pete Earley’s experiences have coalesced into a common theme concerning mental health and the criminal justice system.
“If I broke my arm, I wouldn’t call up the police department and ask them to fix it. And if I needed heart surgery, I wouldn’t call up the sheriff and ask him to fix it,” Earley (pictured above) said. “So why are we asking the police and the sheriff and the judges to solve what should be a community problem?”
In February, Earley brought his experiences to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he testified—alongside The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center’s Director of Health Systems and Services Policy, Dr. Fred Osher, and CSG Justice Center board member and North Carolina’s Commissioner of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice David Guice, among others—at “Breaking the Cycle: Mental Health and the Justice System.” This hearing focused on the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act of 2015, which reauthorizes and enhances programs that promote collaboration between federal, state, and local criminal justice system to improve responses to people with mental disorders.
“We find ourselves asking the same question that [we] posed 150 years ago,” Dr. Osher said during his testimony. “Why are we incarcerating people with mental disorders when we know recovery is possible if they are afforded adequate care?”
With more than two million people with mental disorders cycling through American prisons and jails every year—almost three-quarters of whom have co-occurring drug and/or alcohol use disorders—Dr. Osher suggested that providing care for this population is not only right, but also the fiscally responsible thing to do.
“Without change, large numbers of people with mental illnesses will continue to cycle through our jails and prisons, often resulting in tragic outcomes for these individuals and their families, missed opportunities to link to effective treatment, inefficient use of funding, and a failure to improve public safety,” Osher said.
The Mental Health and Safe Communities Act also includes reauthorization of the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act, an essential funding mechanism supporting the work of Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Program (JMHCP) grantees across the country. Earley addressed these grantees in December 2015 at the JMHCP National Conference in Washington, DC, organized by the CSG Justice Center, a technical assistance provider for JMHCP grantees.
During his address, Earley commended the grantees for “[choosing] careers that demand a higher public calling.” But for people like his son and the men and women he came across while conducting research in the Miami-Dade County jail for his bestselling book “Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness,” Earley said there is more work still to be done.
“If we want people to fully recover, we have to look beyond the criminal justice system,” Earley said. “We must break down the silos and form more meaningful partnerships with every agency in our communities that touch the lives of someone who is sick.”
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