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Minnesota judge to Congress: Criminal justice system failing the mentally ill

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A Hennepin County Judge told a U.S. Senate subcommittee Tuesday that the country's criminal justice system is failing Americans with mental illnesses.

The Star Tribune reports Judge Jay Quam urged the panel to strengthen mental health programs and work to make amends for conditions that have already devastated many lives.

The newspaper says Quam told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights: “People with mental health conditions are brought to jail far too often, they too often languish there, and there is danger in keeping them there.”

Quam testified in support of a bill co-sponsored by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken called the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act. It would authorize $40 million for mental health courts, law enforcement crisis intervention teams, and mental health screening for veterans.

In a statement after Tuesday's hearing Franken said the country uses the criminal justice system as a substitute for a well-functioning mental health system, adding "We're basically using our jails to warehouse people with mental illness. For me, this is a moral issue."

Find a video of the hearing here. Judge Quam's testimony begins at the 44 minute mark.

Franken's bill has been approved by the Judiciary Committee but he said in December that its path to a floor vote is being blocked by two Senators who argue the states should determine how their justice systems deal with the mentally ill.

Just this week another Star Tribune newspaper, this one in Casper, Wyoming, published a story focusing on one woman's experience with mental health and jail to illustrate what the paper describes as a revolving door. Ashley Overfield was diagnosed as bipolar with schizophrenic tendencies at age 19 and has been to jail more than a dozen times in 14 years, the newspaper says.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness has issued a 42-page Guide to Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System, as well as a guide to the system specifically for advocates of adults with mental illness.

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