Testifying before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on Tuesday, Hennepin County District Judge Jay Quam said the criminal justice system fails adults with mental illness.
Quam urged lawmakers to pass legislation to strengthen mental health programs across the country and make amends for conditions that have devastated families and shattered lives.
Quam shared tragic stories of an inmate who stabbed himself in both eyes with a pencil, another who hanged herself in her cell and another who broke his neck after repeatedly smashing his head into a cell toilet.
“People with mental health conditions are brought to jail far too often, they too often languish there, and there is danger in keeping them there,” said Quam, who has presided over Hennepin County Mental Health Court.
Plano, Texas, Police Department Sgt. A.D. Paul and Quam lobbied for passage of the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act. Authored by Franken, the bill would authorize $40 million to extend funding for mental health courts for five years, and law enforcement crisis intervention teams, and offers veterans better screening for mental health problems stemming from trauma and chemical dependency.
Under the bill, police academies would be able to strengthen training programs for new officers on effective responses to mentally ill people they encounter on the street, and increased screening services would be used to better evaluate the mental health of new inmates.
The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the bill last fall, but the legislation has since stalled.
Quam and Paul testified before Franken and Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Ted Cruz of Texas during the hearing focused on law enforcement responses to disabled Americans.
The coordinator for his department’s crisis intervention team, Paul told the lawmakers the units help officers prepare to interact with people with mental health conditions and that more federal funding would “help save and improve lives.”
In Minnesota, The criminal justice system cycles the mentally ill in and out of lockups because of backlogs in the state commitment process and a critical shortage of space in psychiatric facilities, Quam said.
"We need to fund programs that divert people with mental health conditions from jail at every stage of the criminal justice system," Quam said.