STATE HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE
James W. Jordan, Jr.
House Judiciary Committee
Representative Gannon and members of the House Judiciary Committee, thank you for inviting the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Pennsylvania Chapter (NAMI PA) to meet with you to discuss our priorities and goals as they relate to the committee. On behalf of the many families and individuals represented in our organization, your interest in working with NAMI PA is very much appreciated.
NAMI PA is the largest statewide non-profit organization dedicated to helping mental health consumers and their families rebuild their lives and conquer the challenges posed by severe and persistent mental illness. Our purpose is to help all people who are affected by mental illnesses. We know that help comes in a variety of ways - educating the public, reaching out to underserved and minority populations, networking through national organizations, and participating in government programs.
We strive to educate the public about the true nature of mental illness to combat the stigma and discrimination often faced by persons with mental illness. We have 60 affiliates across the Commonwealth who meets monthly. These affiliates provide support, education and advocacy in their communities.
There are a variety of legislative issues that come under the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee and are of interest to our organization.
Last session, the committee held several hearings on the issue of consent for minors. Our organization would like to see this issue revisited. We are specifically interested in strengthening the role of the family/parent in decisions regarding treatment for family members/minors under the age of 18.
Another pressing issue for NAMI PA is the growing trend to incarcerate persons with mental illness. As unbelievable as it may sound, correctional facilities house more individuals with mental illness than hospitals and psychiatric institutions.
A 1999 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report indicates that 3 out of 4 mentally ill inmates have been sentenced to time in prison or probation at least once prior to their current sentence. That same report found that 16 percent of all inmates in state and local prisons suffer from mental illness. This is an increase from an estimate of 10 percent in the late 1980s.
On any given day there are over 283,000 individuals with mental illness serving time in our nation's jails and prisons. In Pennsylvania there are over 10,000 persons with mental illness in our state and county prisons and jails while less than 2,000 individuals are being treated in our state psychiatric hospitals.
Many psychology and law enforcement experts believe this increase is primarily a result of the closing of state psychiatric hospitals and the lack of adequately funded comprehensive care and support in the community mental health system.
We believe that the establishment of mental health courts is critical to
reducing the number of individuals with mental illness in Pennsylvania’s state
and county correctional institutions and to providing more appropriate treatment
for this population in a community or psychiatric hospital setting.
By channeling individuals with mental illness into mental health courts, not only do you reduce the burden on our criminal justice system, but you also help these individuals receive the services that are most likely to change their behavior in becoming productive members of their communities.
We urge you to consider the establishment of mental health courts in our Commonwealth. We would also like to see the Committee discuss funding options which would support the establishment of mental health courts. In addition, we would encourage the Committee to look at changes in the law which would facilitate the diversion of appropriate individuals with a serious mental illness from the Criminal Justice System.
Another issue related to incarceration concerns persons with co-occurring coexisting disorders. It has been suggested that approximately 60 percent of persons with mental illness in jails also have a serious substance abuse problem. Currently, drug courts have been established to focus on drug offenders. The proposed mental health courts will focus on persons with mental illnesses. However, we believe that a very large percentage of the individuals, who will need service from these courts, may not fit perfectly in either system. We believe that, as the mental health court is set up, serious consideration should be given to creating a mechanism that will provide integration of treatment for persons with mental illness and substance abuse problems. Further, the court itself should be set up to competently address this issue, i.e. additional expertise will be required of court officers to deal effectively with co-occurring disorders.
Our court and jail systems have become overburdened with treatment responsibilities they were never intended to meet. We strongly encourage that the necessary parallel actions be taken to help insure that the necessary services and quick or immediate access to these services be created to complement the mental health court decisions. This will help to insure the effectiveness of the mental health courts.
We would also like to see the committee review the mental health procedures act regarding involuntary commitment and the definition of “clear and present danger”. The challenge to balance the rights of the mental health consumer with the rights of members of society is complex and difficult. However, we feel that the current law and its application need careful review. NAMI Pennsylvania has engaged its members in a lively review of this issue. During the last legislative session, NAMI provided a forum at its annual conference, for its members to discuss this issue. We are continuing this review and will work with the Committee as part of this process.
As the Committee considers legislation that impacts the lives of persons with mental illness and their families, we urge your continued outreach to organizations such as NAMI PA, so that we can work together to find solutions to these issues.
Copyright © 2010 National Alliance on Mental Illness of Pennsylvania