A statement by Wisconsin Justice Initiative President Craig Johnson:
The Legislature this spring has the opportunity to do something rare – pass bipartisan legislation that will help address mental health issues that too often result in vulnerable people ending up in prison. The legislation is 2021 Senate Bill 791. It has the potential to increase the use of treatment and “problem-solving” courts throughout the state by expanding the eligibility criteria for Treatment Alternative and Diversion (TAD) grants. Under current law, TAD grants are limited to programs that offer alcohol and other drug abuse services. SB 791 will expand the grants to include deferral and diversion programs that address mental health.
It has long been clear to criminal justice practitioners that mental health issues can result in defendants being caught in the net of the criminal justice system with no way out. As Rep. Evan Goyke, one of the bill’s sponsors, noted in his remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the bill, roughly 40% of men and 80% of women in the prison system have mental health issues. Prisons and jails are the wrong places to treat people suffering from mental health problems. Expanding eligibility for TAD grants will allow counties to set up diversion programs to help people accused of crimes get access to much-needed mental health services and hopefully be able to avoid jail or prison.
Sen. Andre Jacque, Republican lead sponsor of the bill, noted in his remarks that 97% of TAD graduates stay out of prison after completing services through TAD programs. Jacque also called TAD courts a “critical intervention point of the type that we are always pursuing as policymakers.”
In the most recent state budget, an additional $2.5 million was added for the TAD programming. This legislation will allow counties to apply to use some of this additional money for new, innovative mental health treatment courts to address an important community need, help make our state safer, and help those afflicted with mental health issues avoid jail and prison. The need is there – while there are 86 TAD-funded programs around the state in 53 counties and three tribes, there are only six mental health courts in the state, according to the Wisconsin Association of Treatment Court Professionals statement to the Judiciary Committee.
In remarks to the media following the Waukesha Christmas parade tragedy, the mother of the man who has been charged in the incident noted that he suffered from mental health issues as a juvenile but was cut off from further assistance when he turned 18. While we don’t know what role, if any, mental health issues played in that tragedy, addressing mental health, alcohol and drug abuse and other challenges before they result in damaging criminal behavior will make Wisconsin safer.
SB 791 passed the Wisconsin Senate on February 15. It now heads to the Assembly, where it should be put on the calendar immediately. The sooner it gets to Governor Evers’ desk, the sooner these programs can start working in communities across the state.
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