One baby step at a time.... Congress approves alternative treatment for mentally ill criminals

Jim Abrams, Associated Press Writer

Tuesday, October 24, 2000 WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congress has approved funds for pilot programs that emphasize supervision and treatment rather than prison sentences for the mentally ill who commit non-violent crimes.

The bill, passed by the House in a voice vote Tuesday and sent to the president for his signature, gives the Attorney General the authority to make grants to state, local or Indian tribal governments to create up to 100 programs to help the mentally ill caught up in the criminal justice system. It would provide up to $10 million a year for four years for mental health court programs that give specialized training to law enforcement and court personnel and which foster voluntary treatment that carries the possibility of the dismissal of charges or reduced sentences.

Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, the main sponsor of the House version, said that as a former consulting psychologist at an Ohio correctional facility he had seen how prisons have become ``America's new mental asylums.'' The bill passed the Senate last month.

Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, who sponsored the bill, said the criminal justice system has been forced into the role of a surrogate mental health care provider, with 16 percent of all inmates in America's state prisons and local jails suffering from mental illnesses. There are 600,000 to 700,000 seriously mentally ill individuals booked into local jails every year, he said. Mental health courts, patterned after drug courts that also stress treatment over sentencing, currently exist in Alaska, California, Florida, Indiana, New York, Ohio, Oregon and Washington, DeWine said.

The bill number is S. 1865. On the Net: Search for bills at: