Senator Cornyn Introduces Ambitious Plan to Reduce Mass Incarceration Related to Mental Illness

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“For too many people who aren’t able to access lifesaving treatment, interaction with the criminal justice system has led to even greater injustice,” said the Treatment Advocacy Center following the introduction of Senator Cornyn's Mental Health and Safe Communities Act earlier today. "If passed, this bill would reduce mass incarceration related to severe mental illness."

Law enforcement is increasingly on the frontlines of mental health, a position that wastes resources and too often leads to tragic outcomes

Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) today introduced sweeping criminal justice reform legislation aimed at reducing mass incarceration of people with mental illness.

The Mental Health and Safe Communities Act would expand federally proven programs aimed at providing treatment for people with mental illness before they become involved in confrontations with law enforcement, a strategy long advocated by mental health experts, including the Treatment Advocacy Center. The bill also increases training for law enforcement on how to interact with people in a psychiatric crisis and expands data collection on the criminalization of mental illness.

The measure is the most comprehensive proposal to date to deal with the decades’ old problem of warehousing people with mental illness in jails and prisons.

“For too many people who aren’t able to access lifesaving mental health treatment, interaction with the criminal justice system has led to even greater injustice,” said John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center.

“Law enforcement is increasingly on the frontlines of mental health, a position that wastes resources and too often leads to tragic outcomes,” the executive continued. He said as much as twenty percent of the incarcerated population and fifty percent of the people shot and killed by law enforcement each year suffer from a mental illness.

Among many important provisions, the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act would:

  • Make assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) eligible for federal funding. AOT provides court-ordered treatment in the community for at-risk people with severe mental illness and has been shown to significantly reduce crime and violence among its target population.
  • Fund mental health courts, programs proven to divert qualifying criminal defendants with mental illness from jail into community-based mental health treatment. Nationwide, less than 40% of the U.S. population lives in jurisdictions with mental health courts.
  • Promote crisis intervention team training (CIT) for law enforcement. These teams consist of officers who are trained to respond to calls involving mental illness and are consistently found to reduce the arrest and incarceration of individuals with severe mental illness. Nationwide, only 49% of the U.S. population lives in jurisdictions where police departments are using CIT.
  • Require reporting on the criminalization of severe mental illness, including reporting on homicides when individuals with mental illness are involved and the cost of treating severe mental illness in the criminal justice system.

The Treatment Advocacy Center supports the efforts of Senator Cornyn to reduce mass incarceration of people with serious mental illness and commends him for providing needed federal leadership in this area.

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Jamie Mondics
Treatment Advocacy Center
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