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Reps. Porter, Cárdenas, Pressley, and Scanlon Introduce Bill to Protect Individuals with Mental Illness, Disabilities from Police Violence

Lawmakers’ legislation would improve community safety by creating mental health first responder units

Congresswoman Katie Porter (CA-45), along with Congressman Tony Cárdenas (CA-29), Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), and Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon (PA-05), today introduced legislation to reduce violence against individuals with mental illness and disabilities. The Mental Health Justice Act would support the creation of mental health first responder units that would be deployed in lieu of law enforcement when 911 is called because an individual is in a mental health crisis.

“Having a mental illness is not a crime, yet it is treated like one time and again,” Congresswoman Porter said. “It is crucial we connect those in crisis with appropriate resources so they can get the care they need. Too often individuals with mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities are subject to unnecessary violence and are cycled in and out of our justice system when they’d be much better served by other community resources. This common sense legislation would enable mental health providers to be first on the scene when 911 is called for a mental health emergency, making our communities safer for all.”

“We must drastically change policing in America. Making our communities safer does not mean we treat everyone as a threat,” Congressman Cárdenas said. “The way we've criminalized mental health disorders and developmental disabilities has led to an increase in police-related violence and, in serious cases, death. This legislation will change emergency response protocols so that mental health providers are first on the scene of a mental health emergency. This will make our neighborhoods safer, and build trust between police and the communities they serve.”

“For far too long, our legal system has criminalized our neighbors with mental illness and disabilities instead of providing them with the resources and care that they need and deserve,” said Congresswoman Pressley. “Rather than deploying police officers to respond to individuals in mental health crisis—an approach that greatly increases the risk of death for these individuals—we should be deploying culturally competent and trained mental health professionals to respond to these emergencies. I’m proud to partner with Congresswoman Porter and colleagues on legislation to help us do just that.”

“For too long, the problems of people living with mental illness and disabilities have been ignored, and they have ended up in our criminal justice system—often with fatal consequences. In order to address their needs, and change the culture of policing in this country, we must direct resources to meet those needs in a way that provides alternatives to and diversion from arrest, abuse and incarceration,” Congresswoman Scanlon said. “I am proud to join my colleagues in introducing this common sense legislation to provide resources to meet the needs of members of our community living with mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

The Mental Health Justice Act would create a grant program to pay for hiring, training, salary, benefits and additional expenses for mental health provider first responder units. Grant recipients will receive technical assistance from experts through the Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice (DOJ) and from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). States and localities that choose to use their own funding for program costs would also be able to apply for access to this expertise. 

The Treatment Advocacy Center estimates that 1 in 4 fatal police encounters involve someone with a severe mental illness, making the risk of death 16 times greater for these individuals than for others approached or stopped by law enforcement. Those who are arrested are often charged with minor, nonviolent offenses. As a result, jail and prison systems are overcrowded with thousands of individuals who would be far better served by other community resources.

The Mental Health Justice Act is endorsed by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Center for American Progress, NAACP, Justice Collaborative, National Disability Rights Network, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, The Arc of the United States, Easterseals, American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, Center for Public Representation, Justice in Aging, Council of Administrators of Special Education, CommunicationsFIRST, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Union for Reform Judaism, Disability Caucus of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, American Council of the Blind, Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, American Group Psychotherapy Association, National Alliance to Advance Adolescent Health, American Association for Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work, Psychotherapy Action Network Advocacy, Clinical Social Work Association, National Association for Rural Mental Health, Lakeshore Foundation, American Association on Health and Disability, National Health Care for the Homeless Council, National Association of County Behavioral Health & Developmental Disability Directors, Kennedy Forum, Autistic Self Advocacy Network, 2020 Mom, and Trevor Project.

“We applaud Representative Katie Porter for introducing legislation to establish a federal grant program encouraging states and local governments to develop the capacity to send mental health responders rather than police in response to 911 calls,” said Jennifer Mathis, Director of Policy and Legal Advocacy at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. “Countless people with psychiatric disabilities continue to be killed or needlessly incarcerated in situations where dispatching someone other than law enforcement could have avoided these senseless and tragic outcomes. The Mental Health Justice Act is precisely the type of legislation that Congress should be considering now and we will work with Representative Porter to secure its passage.”

“People who suffer from mental illness are disproportionately arrested, disproportionately the victims of excessive police force, disproportionately killed by police, and disproportionately incarcerated,” said Kate Chatfield, Director of Policy at The Justice Collaborative. “Unfortunately, the tragic killing of Daniel Prudes is just one example of how police are not equipped to address people in crisis. Just as we would not arrest and incarcerate someone because they are suffering the effects of cancer, neither should we send police to arrest and incarcerate someone suffering from the effects of mental illness. The Mental Health Justice Act of 2020 understands that we need mental health professionals, not armed police officers, to respond to people in crisis; we need community care centers, not cages. The Justice Collaborative is honored to endorse Representative Porter’s legislation that is both a compassionate and a common-sense response to our twin crises of policing and to the lack of care for people who suffer from mental illness.”

Throughout her time in Congress, Porter has made improving mental health care a top priority. Her bipartisan legislation to hold insurance companies accountable for treating mental health care as equal to other types of medical care recently cleared a key committee hurdle. She also introduced legislation in June to help meet the skyrocketing demand for mental and behavioral health services during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Porter has also been a continuous advocate for reforming our criminal justice system. Recognizing that police brutality has led to far too many deaths and far too little justice, particularly for people of color, Porter voted for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. She has also backed legislation to break down protections currently built into our justice system that prevent law enforcement officers from being held personally liable for constitutional violations, as well as legislation to lower the standard of proof in criminal cases involving civil rights violations.

A one-pager on the Mental Health Justice Act can be viewed HERE.