Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Interim Senate Committe Charges to the 80th Legislature

One of the items included among Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's interim charges to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee of the 80th Legislature relates to mental health:

"Study the relationship between the public mental health system and the criminal justice and civil courts systems, including the identification and sharing of information regarding mentally ill offenders, including minors, among criminal justice and mental health agencies, the courts, state hospitals, and the Veterans Administration. Study how current confidentiality laws impact the exchange of information among groups described above. Study the sentencing of mentally ill offenders compared to non-mentally ill offenders, including minors, and the affect that has on statewide prison capacity and on the health care provided to mentally ill offenders. (Joint Charge with Senate State Affairs Committee)"

Source: The Quorum Report

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Texas Chief Justice Task Force Sets Goals for 2008

Here's another item that appeared in the January 2008 newsletter of the Consensus Project:

"The Texas Chief Justice Task Force, led by the Honorable Sharon Keller, Presiding Judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, has set forth a series of goals for 2008 that will build on successes in the past year and improve outcomes for people with mental illnesses involved with the criminal justice system.

In 2007, the task force helped to bring about legislation that facilitated information-sharing among criminal justice and mental health agencies. The task force designed a system to identify in the Department of Public Safety records individuals who are also listed in the state mental health service database (Department of State Health Services; DSHS). Judge Keller and key task force members presented the system to the 80th Texas Legislature, and these recommendations and related funding were adopted in May 2007 (SB 839 by Senator Duncan, a member of the task force). The new information-sharing mechanism, which permits authorized jail personnel to gather additional information on individuals flagged as having prior contact with the public mental health system, is expected to be operational by September 2008.

Judge Keller’s task force now plans to recommend changes to the state’s reporting and jail intake processes. The goal is to identify as quickly as possible people arrested who have a mental health diagnosis or history of treatment and to transmit this information in a uniform manner to court officials while respecting individuals' privacy rights. These efforts will be coordinated with the new $82 million program for jail diversion run by the Department of State Health Services, another product of last year’s legislative session. This program will fund mobile response teams and a hotline that will provide mental health interventions for people identified at intake as potentially having mental illnesses.

Over the next year, the task force hopes to accomplish the following: recommend changes to the statewide jail intake form to add a new flagging mechanism to indicate potential mental illness; examine the legal changes necessary for court magistrates within 24 hours of arrest to order the completion of a uniform mental health report form; design and pilot this form; and recommend that legislation be enacted that makes it a requirement in Texas. The task force hopes that enhancing procedures to identify early at jail intake people who might need mental health treatment will ensure that jail personnel make use of the new diversion program and are able to determine which individuals need mental health interventions as early as possible.

Together, all of these advances will help to improve the process through which people with mental illnesses entering the criminal justice system are identified and connected to treatment services in Texas. The task force’s work has been made possible through the Chief Justices’ Criminal Justice/Mental Health Leadership Initiative, which is coordinated by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and GAINS Center and supported by the JEHT Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation."

U.S. House Passes Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Reauthorization and Improvement Act

Yesterday, January 23, 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Reauthorization and Improvement Act (MIOTCRRIA), H.R. 3992.

Here's a statement from leaders of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which appears in the January 2008 newsletter of the Consensus Project.

"Leaders of the Council of State Governments Justice Center laud Members of the U.S. House of Representatives for passage yesterday of the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Reauthorization and Improvement Act (MIOTCRRIA), H.R. 3992.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), will make a significant commitment to addressing the needs of both the criminal justice system and individuals with mental illnesses who come into contact with it.

'The passage of the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Reauthorization and Improvement Act illustrates the extraordinary bipartisan consensus that exists among elected officials to increase the accessibility of integrated mental health and substance abuse treatment, and to promote collaborative efforts between criminal justice and mental health agencies,' said Dr. James S. Reinhard, Commissioner of the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services, and a Justice Center board member.

This legislation, which has received strong support in both the House and the Senate, will reauthorize the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act (MIOTCRA). Enacted in 2004, MIOTCRA created the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Grant Program designed to help states and counties design and implement coordinated efforts between criminal justice and mental health systems. Through appropriated funds, the Bureau of Justice Assistance within the Department of Justice has awarded 53 communities in 35 states with additional resources to plan and implement collaborative efforts between criminal justice and mental health systems.

The new bill will raise the authorization level of MIOTCRA from $50 million per year to $75 million per year and will extend the authorization through 2013. The bill will also reauthorize the mental health courts grant program, and require a study to be completed on the prevalence of mental illness in prisons and jails. Download the complete bill text (pdf).

'Reauthorizing MIOTCRA will provide much-needed support to states and local governments across the country. Every state is now seeking to design, implement, and expand initiatives that will improve the response to people with mental illnesses in contact with the criminal justice system. Front-line professionals, like corrections and police officers, are telling us that this will increase public safety, reduce state spending, and save lives,' said Justice Center board member and Connecticut State Representative Michael Lawlor. 'We urge the Senate to take swift action in support of this bill.'"

Earlier coverage of this legislation is available here and here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Where Do the Presidential Candidates Stand on Mental Health Issues?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has released the responses it has received thus far from the presidential candidates to its questionnaire on a variety of mental health issues. The survey includes several questions related to jail diversion programs for non-violent offenders with mental illness.

On the NAMI website, you will find comprehensive responses from Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and former Senator John Edwards. Senator John McCain has provided a statement on mental health issues. Responses from other candidates are pending.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Criminal Justice and Mental Illness in Travis County

KUT, the public radio station in Austin, recently aired a story about efforts to stem the criminalization of people with mental illness in Travis County. The bottom line? More money is needed for programs that provide treatment for those with mental illness and help keep them out of jail.

Listen to the story.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Increased Incidents of Violence Among Returning War Veterans has posted an article that appeared today (January 14, 2008) in The Independent/UK regarding the increase in violent crimes committed by those returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here are some excerpts from "Traumatised Veterans ‘Have Killed 120 in US’", by Stephen Foley:

"While public anger is directed at the Pentagon for sending American soldiers ill-prepared to fight in Iraq, an equally troubling problem is rearing its head at home. Military veterans are returning from the warzone just as ill-prepared for civilian life and dozens suffering from post-traumatic stress are committing murder and manslaughter.

A new study has identified more than 120 killings committed by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as psychologically troubled soldiers slip through the net of an overextended military mental health system.

The study, which was conducted from examining local news reports, and which may well dramatically understate the scale of the problem, suggested that killings by military veterans have almost doubled since the start of the wars.

Although the Pentagon immediately questioned the accuracy of the figures, the mounting number of incidents across the US add up to a social problem akin to the traumas of returning Vietnam veterans a generation earlier. ..."

"Collectively, the stories attest to the inadequacies of the US military mental health system, which a Pentagon task force last year described as "woefully understaffed", poorly funded and undermined by the stigma still attached to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The disorder has been a major concern since veterans' associations found that 15 percent of Vietnam vets still suffered from PTSD a decade after the conflict ended in 1975. ..."

"The study of killings by military veterans was conducted by The New York Times. It showed an 89 percent increase - from 184 cases to 349 - in the six years following the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan in the number of homicides involving active-duty military personnel and new veterans. About three-quarters of these cases involved Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

More than half of the crimes involved guns while the rest were stabbings, beatings, strangulations and bath drownings, the report said. Twenty-five offenders faced murder, manslaughter or homicide charges for fatal car crashes resulting from drunken, reckless or suicidal driving.

A Pentagon spokesman questioned the methodology of the study, which examined local press reports to identify cases, and rejected the comparison of post-9/11 coverage with the previous six years. The rise might be due to newspaper reporters increased awareness of military service, a spokesman suggested, and questioned the 'lumping together' of different kinds of crimes.

The New York Times said its study was conservative. 'This reporting most likely uncovered only the minimum number of such cases, given that not all killings, especially in big cities and on military bases, arereported publicly or in detail,' it added."

Read the full article at
Numerous veterans with mental illness have been sentenced to death and executed in this country. Perhaps the best example is Manny Babbitt, a veteran of the Vietnam war. Manny, the recipient of a Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam, was a paranoid schizophrenic who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He was convicted of the murder of an elderly woman who died as the result of a heart attack after a break-in and beating. Mr. Babbitt's defense attorneys argued that their client was suffering from a Vietnam flashback at the time of the crime. Manny Babbitt was executed by the State of California in 1999.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

New date set for Coble punishment trial

According to the Waco Tribune-Herald (January 10, 2008), Judge Matt Johnson of Waco’s 54th State District Court has set August 4 as the date to begin jury selection for a new sentencing hearing for Billie Wayne Coble. Coble's death sentence was overturned last year by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the statute in effect in Texas at the time of Coble's conviction (1990) had prevented the jury from fully considering the mitigating evidence presented by his trial attorneys. Coble was convicted in the August 1989 shooting deaths of his estranged wife’s parents, Robert and Zelda Vicha, of Axtell, and her brother, Waco police Sgt. Bobby Vicha.

The McLennan County District Attorney's office has announced that it again will seek the death penalty for the now 59-year-old Coble.

According to the Tribune-Herald, Coble’s trial attorneys offered testimony about his troubled childhood and his traumatic Vietnam combat experiences. 5th Circuit Judge Emilio M. Garza wrote that the jury might have placed more relevance on those experiences if given the opportunity by the wording of the special issues.

Coble's appellate attorneys Russ Hunt Jr. and Scott Stevens will seek to present evidence to the jury regarding Coble's mental illness. "Hunt said Coble’s trial will focus on his mental state at the time of the offense and his nonviolent record during his 18 years on death row. 'We will be able to do a better job of telling the whole story to the jury and explaining to a jury and having some experts explaining to a jury why a person would do what Mr. Coble did in this situation,' Hunt said."

"With respect to his mental illness, there was at least some evidence introduced at Coble’s trial that his post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorders were amenable to treatment,” Judge Garza wrote in the 5th Circuit opinion. “Based on this evidence, the jury might have concluded that Coble, if properly treated, would be less likely to commit criminal acts constituting a continuing threat to society.”

Read the full article:

Earlier coverage of the Coble case is available here.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Jail Diversion Program in Dallas County

Here's an article that appeared last month in the Dallas Morning News (December 19, 2007), which focuses on Dallas County's jail diversion program for offenders with mental illness:

The article presents several success stories of the program, which provides those who have committed misdemeanor offenses with an opportunity to participate in an intensive, closely-supervised mental health treatment program instead of being sent to prison. "Case managers make sure they stay on their medications and off drugs and alcohol. They must attend counseling sessions, stay out of trouble, prove they're keeping doctor appointments. They have to find housing and jobs – many are homeless when they start the program – and submit to drug testing," according to DMN columnist Jacquielynn Floyd.

Mental Health-Related Actions of the 80th Texas Legislature

The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health recently released its "Legislative Update: A Guide to the Mental Health-Related Actions of the 80th Texas Legislature." This summary of mental health-related actions by the 80th Texas Legislature is now available online:

It includes information about mental-health related legislation in such areas as criminal justice, appropriations for public mental health services, juvenile justice, health insurance, and civil commitment proceedings.

Of most relevance to this blog is the summary of attempts to reform Texas' insanity defense statute (pp. 44-45), which were not successful. House Bill 2795, authored by Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), sought to change the language of the current insanity defense to allow for a more thorough inquiry into how mental illness impacts a defendant's capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his or her conduct. The bill also sought to provide information to a jury about the consequences of declaring a defendant "Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity." Under the current statute, juries are not told that most defendants found NGRI "are committed to a state hospital and remain under the jurisdiction of the court for a duration not to exceed the sentence limits allowed for the crime."

According to the report, "some argue that the lack of jury instructions regarding the insanity defense prevents jurors from adequately contemplating the consequences of their decision on the life of the defendant and the safety of the community." House Bill 2795 passed out of committee but was not considered by the full House.