Sunday, August 9, 2015

Instead of Criminalizing, Treat the Mentally Ill

As a country, we deserve a better criminal justice system. The current system is broken, costly, and often punishes the weak, the meek, and the most vulnerable amongst us. Accountability and responsibility has seemingly disappeared from as we’ve entered the blame game state of affairs where a select few can do no wrong while others languish in prisons costing taxpayers millions of dollars. We can, must, and will do better.

Cops shouldn't simply arrest people that upset and aggravate them. They certainly shouldn't kill the mentally ill or people that are frustrating. If cops were better trained and equipped to encounter the mentally ill, many of their encounters with disruptive, difficult citizens wouldn't end in arrests or deaths of those citizens. Even when this happens, our criminal justice system is not currently designed to rectify these mistakes in judgment and discernment.

When any citizen is arrested, it becomes a problem. It disrupts the individual’s life, obviously, but it potentially leads to the loss of a job, the loss of a livelihood, and the loss of housing and healthcare. This usually doesn’t just affect one person but whole families and extended families. Arrests should be the last resort and used for only the violent criminals among us.

Citizens who are not violent criminals and are mentally ill or drug-addicted should be given the choice . . . mental health treatment or lockup. It then becomes a choice for the citizen. This gives citizens the accountability and responsibility over their lives that they both deserve and require as opposed to giving the government sole authority over managing a person’s affairs. That’s a conservative value. If the person is a disruption to society and that person does not want to take that accountability and responsibility seriously, the government should step in to protect the broader public and the citizen from harm. That’s a liberal value. 

I’m not suggesting utilizing the current treatment that is forced upon people that become embroiled in the criminal justice system either. That system is a colossal failure that punishes the drug addicted without providing any effective treatment. All that benefits from that system is the state and their contracted partners.

Currently, if you are arrested for drug or alcohol-related crimes, a person is actually placed in close proximity with hardened drug and alcohol abusers who are also forced to be in the same costly programs. The program is not actually meant to treat alcohol or drug addiction but to cost the person a great deal of money and time which ends up in the pockets of the government and their partners. Ultimately, the person is set up to fail, is set up to lose their job, and set to perpetuate their time in the system. 

I am suggesting real treatment for real mental illness. Drug and alcohol abuse, dependency, and addiction really are symptoms of underlying mental health issues that if are unresolved or undiagnosed will always trigger those symptoms of escape. Connecting this vulnerable population with real healthcare and actual services that help each become more responsible members of our society benefits us all.

Is this easy? No. Is the current system of punishment and perpetual cost and criminalization working? Hell no. 

These people don't need to suffer and don't need to spread that suffering to others. They can become productive citizens in our society. 

The current criminal justice system has failed them and all of us completely. Mental illness is still absolutely misunderstood by the vast majority in the general population. People don’t realize that the reason some turn to alcohol and drugs on a daily or regular basis is because these are self-medicating options that are more socially acceptable than taking daily psychotropic medications or undergoing mental health treatment.

The facts are that we have too many mentally ill citizens in our jails and prisons. In 1960 there were over 320 beds per 1000 people. Today that number has dropped precipitously to 17 beds per 1000 people. When services lag behind need, the overflow becomes a collective concern. American prisons hold over 350,000 mentally ill people that shouldn’t be in the system or aren’t capable of being in the system. These American citizens are vulnerable to egregious abuse by both inmates and prison staff. 

Republican Presidential candidate for Governor John Kasich of Ohio has worked to reverse these trends. He, unlike most Republican governors accepted the Obamacare Medicaid expansion money to help the poor and the disadvantaged in his state. He has been connecting the mentally ill in prisons with services and has dropped the recidivism rate down to 27% for these individuals, a dramatic drop from the national average of 50%. 

It is possible to tackle these issues with a bipartisan approach. This is not an ideological struggle. This is a moral and rational fight to better our country, better the lives of our citizens, and together strengthen our communities and families while saving taxpayer money. We all benefit when we all become more whole and healthy. We don’t benefit when we lock those away that are sick. When we give people choices and better options from which to choose, it gives each person more accountability and responsibility. That is what is sorely lacking in America today.

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