Criminal Justice Reform included in 21st Century Cures Act

By Jamal R. Nelson, Council of State Governments Justice Center

The House passed a bill Wednesday on a sweeping medical innovation package that includes new research funding, mental health and criminal justice reforms, and grants to fight opioid abuse. The package known as the 21st Century Cures Act includes language to improve the nation’s mental health system and $1 billion over two years to help fight against opioid abuse. The bill is expected to pass the Senate.

The bill includes important mental health and criminal justice measures, such as the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, which fixes the nation’s broken mental health system by refocusing programs, reforming grants, and removing federal barriers to care; the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act which strengthens federal programs related to mental health in the criminal justice system by enhancing the ability of families and communities to identify mental illness; and the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act, which would update the Mentally Ill Offender and Treatment Crime Reduction Act (MIOTCRA) and facilitate collaboration among the criminal justice, juvenile justice, mental health treatment, and substance abuse systems to ensure those with mental illness receive the treatment and help they need.

Key provisions of the mental health/criminal justice sections of the Cures Act include:

·        Amends the Second Chance Act to allow state and local governments to use reentry demonstration project grant funds for the provision of mental health treatment and transitional services (including housing) for mentally ill offenders who are re-entering the community.

·         Amends the Second Chance Act to allow state and local governments to use reentry demonstration project grant funds under this program for the purpose of providing mental health services and to coordinate transitional services for individuals re-entering society with mental illness, substance abuse problems, or a chronic homelessness.

·        Requires the Attorney General to direct federal judges to operate mental health court pilot programs, allowing incarcerated mentally-ill offenders to be diverted from prison to residential treatment facilities or other forms of treatment-based supervised release.

·        Reauthorizes the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act (MIOTCRA), an essential funding mechanism that supports the use of mental health courts and crisis intervention teams in local law enforcement agencies. The bill would extend MIOTCRA, effectively filling critical gaps in the system, including providing additional resources for veterans’ treatment courts to help those suffering from behavioral or post-traumatic stress disorders.

·        Requires state and local governments to use drug court and mental health court funding to develop specialized programs for offenders who have co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders.

·         Updates the existing Prosecution Drug Treatment Alternatives to Incarceration Program statute to allow state and local governments to use grant funds under this program for creating and operating programs that divert individuals with mental illness and co-occurring disorders from prisons and jails pursuant to a court-supervised intensive treatment program. Current law only allows funds under this program to be used for addressing substance abuse issues.

·         Amends MIOTCRA to allow the Attorney General to use existing authorized funds to award grants to non-profit organizations for the creation of a National Criminal Justice and Mental Health Training Center. This entity would coordinate best practices on responding to mental illness in the criminal justice system, and would provide technical assistance to governmental agencies who wish to implement these best practices.

·        Authorizes funding for prison and jail-based programs, including transitional and re-entry programs that reduce the likelihood of recidivism when a mentally-ill offender is released.

·       Authorizes resources for expanded training activities, providing more officers with a basic understanding of the issues involved when responding situations with individuals with mental health crises.