The bill authorizes $40 million to extend funding for mental health courts for five years, creates more crisis intervention teams to work closely with police, and offers veterans better screening for mental health problems stemming from trauma and chemical dependency. 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. [...] Franken said the bill particularly recognizes that veterans with mental health issues should be accorded special consideration if they find themselves in the criminal justice system after committing a nonviolent crime.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has made mental health legislation one of the central elements of his legislative efforts and appears to have come up with a sensible proposal: the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act.
On the surface, the bill's prospects looked encouraging, at least as of a couple of months ago. Franken's bill has 30 co-sponsors in the Senate, for example, nearly half of whom are Republicans. What's more, there's a companion bill in the House, sponsored by Rep. Rich Nugent, a Florida Republican. Proponents have worked under the assumption for months that the package could reach the floor in both chambers will minimal opposition.
But before the Senate broke for the holidays, Franken discovered that his bill has been blocked by two colleagues who placed a "hold" on the legislation. While the senator didn't identify the members behind the hold, the Minneapolis Star Tribune learned that the two opponents are Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).
And why, pray tell, would Coburn and Lee oppose a bipartisan measure filled with sensible measures related to mental health? Because they "believe that states should govern how mentally ill people are treated."
It's a classic example of ideology trumping pragmatism in conservative politics. In this case, Franken and a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers have identified a legitimate problem and agreed to a series of effective measures intended to address that problem. It's not an especially expensive bill and it enjoys the support of mental-health advocates, law enforcement, and veterans' groups.
But for Coburn and Lee, none of that matters. It's not Congress' concern, they say. Let states handle it. Whether it would help or not is irrelevant.
Of course, if states were able to adequately address the issue, the bill wouldn't be necessary, and therein lies the point: it's a national issue, in need of a national response, in part because states can't handle it on their own.
But for Coburn and Lee, ideology often trumps every other consideration.
The fight is far from over and Franken has said he still hopes to see the legislation on the floor sometime soon. "I think we'll get there," he said.