Cornyn: Criminal Justice System 'One of the Worst Places Imaginable' for the Mentally Ill

WASHINGTON – An effort with bipartisan support to reform the way those suffering from mental illness are treated within the criminal justice system could encounter turbulence over an issue dealing with guns.

During a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn, of Texas, told fellow members that the nation’s criminal justice system isn’t adequately equipped to treat individuals with mental illness.

“In fact, it’s one of the worst places imaginable for these individuals,” Cornyn said. “Our nation’s law enforcement and correctional officers are the best in the world, but they are not mental health practitioners.”

“So it should come as no surprise that mentally ill individuals who enter the criminal justice system generally become more sick, more likely to reoffend, and more likely to become violent.”

Cornyn has introduced the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act, which, among other things, strengthens the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and allows state and local governments to create pre-trial screening and assessment programs to identify offenders with mental illness.

It also requires the attorney general to direct federal judges to operate mental health court pilot programs, requires state and local governments to use drug and mental health court funding to develop specialized programs for those with co-occurring mental health and substance abuse problems and mandates specialized training and the use of new technology to ensure that those who work in the criminal justice system are properly equipped to respond to individuals with mental illness and mental illness crisis.

Warehousing the mentally ill is not working, Cornyn said, and lawmakers need to address the problem “so we can improve public safety, protect civil rights, and save taxpayer dollars.”

The National Alliance on Mental Health reported that about 20 percent of all federal and state prisoners have serious mental illness. An estimated two million are admitted to jails each year. Incarceration usually leads to worsening of psychiatric symptoms. In jails, the cost of providing care for adults with mental illness is two to three times greater than that for other inmates. It costs less to put non-violent individuals with mental illness into treatment than to put them in jail. Diversion is both cost-effective and humane.

The Cornyn measure received some vocal support but a provision regarding firearms could ultimately cause conflict.

Under current law, anyone who has been determined to suffer from a mental illness by a court is barred from possessing firearms. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System in 2014 denied access to firearms to 3,500 individuals on that basis.

The Cornyn bill establishes a review process for anyone prohibited from possessing a firearm because of mental illness and allows for the removal of an individual’s name from a federal background check system.

“In fact, some of the provisions in Senator Cornyn’s bill would make it easier, not harder, for mentally ill individuals to access firearms,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, of New York, told the committee. “That is the opposite direction from which we should be moving.”

Cornyn disagreed, asserting that “nothing in my legislation makes it easier for mentally ill people to get access to firearms.”

“Nothing,” he emphasized.

Regardless, committee members, both Republicans and Democrats, agreed that the situation needs to be addressed and several bills, including one by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), have been introduced. Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), the ranking member, said he was pleased the panel was looking into the issue.

“Dealing effectively with mental illness in this country is essential to the functioning of our criminal justice system, and to our society as a whole,” Leahy said. “It is widely known that those suffering from mental illness are far more likely to be arrested, and to keep getting rearrested if they do not get the treatment they need. Our prisons and jails too often serve as warehouses for people who are sick. We can and must do better.”

In testimony before the committee, Dr. Fred C. Osher, director of health systems and services policy for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, noted that an estimated 2 million people with serious mental illnesses are admitted to jails across the country every year – a total equivalent to the combined populations of Vermont and New Hampshire. Almost three-quarters have drug and/or alcohol use disorders.

“Once incarcerated, individuals with mental illnesses tend to stay longer in jail and, upon release, are at a higher risk of returning to incarceration than those without these illnesses,” he said. “The human toll of this problem — and its cost to taxpayers — is staggering.”

Osher said having a mental illness “is not tantamount to having a ‘get-out-of-jail-free card.’”

“All people need to be accountable for their actions,” Osher said. “Too often, however, people with serious mental illnesses are incarcerated, oftentimes for minor offenses, when they would be better served in the community. Though jails have a constitutional mandate to treat the mental illnesses of their inmates, they are often ill-equipped to meet their needs or even to assess what those needs might be.”

Without accurate information about the needs of individuals coming into correctional settings, Osher said, “very few facilities collect this information — decisions about who to release, who to treat and who to segregate are often ill-informed.”

Jails spend two to three times more money on adults with mental illnesses than on those without special needs, he said, “yet they often do not see a return on those investments in terms of improved public safety or health of those individuals.”

“Although states and localities have made tremendous efforts to address this problem, they are often thwarted by significant obstacles, including inadequate data to inform policy changes, minimal resources and a lack of coordination between criminal justice, mental health, substance use treatment and other agencies,” Osher told lawmakers. “For individuals with mental illnesses, contact with the criminal justice system often starts a cycle of arrest, incarceration, release and rearrest that can pose nearly insurmountable challenges to recovery.”

Prisons often become the “institutional home” for those with mental illnesses even though they offer a poor environment.

“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.