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Rhode Island's Senate pushes bill to help mentally-ill defendants

Mental health issues are on the minds of the Rhode Island Senate as policy makers try to push through a package of reforms designed to encourage treatment of the mentally ill rather than incarceration.

The incarceration of the mentally ill has been a growing national concern, and Rhode Island is no exception. Now, a study by the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island in collaboration with Roger Williams University has helped bring to light some of the problems.

Nationally, people with a serious mental illness average 3.2 to 1 odds of landing in jail instead of a hospital, even though a hospital would be more appropriate. The problem, in many cases, is that cuts in funding for mental health care have left fewer resources available for the mentally ill to seek treatment.

Those spending cuts actually cost the state more money in the end. It's more expensive to warehouse the mentally ill in prison than it is to put them in a psychiatric hospital and treat them, especially once the additional costs of prosecution, court time and probation are factored in.

Prisoners with mental illness also end up staying incarcerated longer than they'd likely be hospitalized, since their mental illnesses lead them to continue to break the rules. They become "problem" inmates and end up serving more time for bad behavior -- behavior they likely can't control. The problem behavior also leads to a need for more staff members, just to handle the prisoners who are volatile without psychiatric treatment.

In addition, prisoners with mental illness are likely to become "frequent flyers," returning to prison often because their mental health issues are either never get addressed at all or they're left without aftercare upon release.

The new bills would include measures designed to be baby steps in the right direction toward fixing a broken system. They include diverting mentally ill people charged with minor crimes to counseling, not jail. Another would create a batterer's intervention program. Supporters also believe the measures would help reduce the state's high probation rate.

If someone you care about has a mental illness and is arrested, make sure that his or her criminal defense attorney is aware of the defendant's mental health problems. That may help his or her attorney convince a prosecutor or judge to agree to a solution other than prison.

Source: The Washington Times, "Rhode Island Senate passes criminal justice reform bills," Feb. 02, 2017

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