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Michael Martinez Jr. is a drug addict diagnosed with a variety of mental health problems. His mother was stabbed to death by her boyfriend. His father is in prison for his own drug conviction.
By: Victoria Advocate’s editorial board.
Given the state of the deeply flawed U.S. criminal justice and mental health systems, Martinez seems destined to spend the rest of his life in and out of prison. He is one of 2.2 million people behind bars.
A terrible set of circumstances collided to make the United States the world leader in incarceration by a wide margin. Only North Korea – reflect a moment on that scary comparison – comes even close to locking up such a high percentage of its citizens.
This wasn’t always so. The problem started in the 1960s with the best of intentions: The country moved away from treating the mentally ill in state institutions and shifted the care toward community-based programs like Gulf Bend Center in Victoria. However, adequate funding did not follow this shift.
At the same time, the United States started ramping up its war on drugs and began mandatory sentencing. This has led the United States to an incarceration rate that is 5 to 10 times higher than in Western Europe or other democracies.
Clearly, the criminal justice and mental health systems are badly broken. The failed policies of the past 50 years are destroying millions of lives.
At long last, the United States appears poised to tackle the problem at local, state and federal levels. Victoria County residents have met for the past year to develop a plan for trying to keep so many mentally ill from being sent to jail and for trying to get help for those who end up behind bars. At the same time, the county is looking to contract with the University of Texas Medical Branch to provide better psychiatric care for inmates.
The cost for both plans could total millions of dollars, so the county is looking to the state for funding. State lawmakers have taken baby steps toward increasing funding for mental health care, but need to do substantially more during the upcoming legislative session.
On the federal level, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, spoke last week on behalf of the Mental Health and Safe Communities Act. His remarks underscored the gravity of the problem:
“I dare say there’s probably not a family in America that doesn’t have to deal with this in some way or another, either at work, people you go to church with, people who live next door. Some way or another, mental health problems are rampant.
“We are warehousing people in jails and other places and not giving them the treatment they need in order to get their basic underlying problem taken care of.”
Some key provisions of the act Cornyn has co-sponsored:
- Requires state and local governments to use drug court and mental health court funding to develop specialized programs for offenders who have both mental health and substance abuse disorders.
- Allows state and local government to use existing funding to create pre-trial screening and assessment programs to identify mentally ill offenders, provide need-based treatment and develop post-release supervision plans.
- Allows state and local governments, including school officials, to use existing federal grant funding to expand the use of Crisis Intervention Teams, who are trained to respond to mental health crises and prevent acts of violence.
These are long overdue steps, but they represent only part of the solution. The United States also must start a meaningful dialogue about the cost of the country’s war on drugs. It’s time to seriously consider decriminalization of drugs, coupled with better support for substance abuse treatment programs.
The moral imperative for doing so is overwhelming, but those unmoved by that argument should look simply at the financial reason: The cost of incarceration is 20 times greater than that of providing that same inmate proper mental health care instead.
Hardworking taxpayers are not obligated to feel sorry for Martinez, who has led a life of crime and drug abuse. But they should seriously consider the societal cost of the country’s failed approach to mental health care and substance abuse.
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