Sunday, April 5, 2009

Michael Goforth: Looking into genuine justice

By Michael Goforth

Saturday, April 4, 2009

I agree with U.S. Sen. Jim Webb: We are putting too many people in jail who probably should not be there at a massive cost to taxpayers.

In an editorial last week, we noted that steps are being proposed in Florida for pilot programs to keep some mentally ill persons out of jail and to put them in community-based mental health programs. By doing so, those with mental illness can receive better treatment and taxpayers save money.

Each year, about 125,000 of the state’s estimated 600,000 residents with mental illness are booked into jails and prisons. The pilot programs are a small start in addressing the issue.

In St. Lucie County alone, for example, about a third of new arrests involve persons with mental illness. The cost to house a person with mental illness charged with a felony averages more than $64,000 in the St. Lucie County jail. For a mentally ill person charged with a misdemeanor, the cost is more than $35,000. That’s per person per stay, not per year, and the money comes from taxpayers.

Last Sunday, in Parade Magazine, Webb, a Virginia Democrat, laid out his concerns about the nation’s criminal justice system and the urgent need for reforms.

On March 26, Webb introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009.

In remarks on the Senate floor, Webb said:

“Our goal in this legislation is to create a national commission with an 18-month timeline, not to simply talk about the problems we have in our criminal justice system, but to actually look at all of the elements in this system, how they are interrelated in terms of the difficulties that we have in remedying issues of criminal justice in this country and to deliver us from a situation that has evolved over time where we are putting far too many of the wrong people in prison and we are still not feeling safer in our neighborhoods. We’re not putting in prison or bringing to justice those people who are perpetuating violence and criminality as a way of life.”

Webb noted that the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s known prison population. He said, “There are only two possibilities here: Either we have the most evil people on Earth living in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.”

Webb proposes that the criminal justice commission especially examine the impacts of gangs and drugs on incarceration and law enforcement policies. Housing the mentally ill also is a major priority.

“We are, for a complex set of reasons, warehousing the mentally ill in our prisons,” Webb said. “With four times as many mentally ill in our prisons as opposed to institutions, the main point for all of us to consider is that these people who are in prison are not receiving the kind of treatment they would need in order to remedy the disabilities that have brought them to that situation.”

The senator proposes that the commission look much farther than the federal prison system, but down to the county jails, such as those on the Treasure Coast that have experienced major increases in the number and costs of housing the mentally ill.

Webb said, “I believe very strongly even though we are a federal body, that there is a compelling national interest for us to examine this issue and reshape and reform our criminal justice system at the federal, state and local levels. I believe the commission that I am going to present will provide us with that opportunity.”

Lawmakers are finally beginning to recognize the lunacy of spending billions of dollars for housing the mentally ill, who may have committed minor crimes while off their medications, in jails and prisons, when they can be cared for better and at lower cost to the taxpayers in legitimate treatment programs.

Action could begin soon at the state level, to a minor extent. Action at the federal level may begin soon, but is expected to take years for appropriate legislation to address the issues to be signed into law.

While the wheels turn slowly, more lives are being lost in the system, more families are being put in nowhere land, and the taxpayers keep forking over money for largely useless endeavors.

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