U.S. Reps. Katie Porter (D-CA), Tony Cardenas (D-CA), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA) introduced legislation on Tuesday that aims to reduce violence against individuals with mental illness and disabilities.
The Mental Health Justice Act would support the creation of mental health first responder units to be deployed instead of law enforcement when someone calls for emergency help with an individual in the midst of a mental health crisis.
“Having a mental illness is not a crime, yet it is treated like one time and again,” Porter said. “It is crucial we connect those in crisis with appropriate resources so they can get the care they need. Too often, individuals with mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities are subject to unnecessary violence and are cycled in and out of our justice system when they’d be much better served by other community resources. This commonsense legislation would enable mental health providers to be first on the scene when 911 is called for a mental health emergency, making our communities safer for all.”
The legislation would create a grant program that would pay for hiring, training, salary, benefits, and other expenses for mental health provider first responder units. Grant recipients would also receive assistance from experts through the Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice and from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, an estimated one in four fatal police encounters involve an individual with a severe mental illness. Individuals with severe mental illness face a 16 times greater chance of dying if approached or stopped by law enforcement. Those arrested often are charged with minor, nonviolent offenses, a practice that crowds the jail and prison system with individuals who would be better served by other community resources, advocates said.
“We must drastically change policing in America. Making our communities safer does not mean we treat everyone as a threat,” Congressman Cárdenas said. “The way we’ve criminalized mental health disorders and developmental disabilities has led to an increase in police-related violence and, in serious cases, death. This legislation will change emergency response protocols so that mental health providers are first on the scene of a mental health emergency. This will make our neighborhoods safer and build trust between police and the communities they serve.”
The bill is endorsed by several mental health advocacy organizations, including the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, National Disability Rights Network, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, Center for Public Representation, and the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness, among others.