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Rep. Porter Reintroduces Bill to Reduce Violence Against Individuals with Mental Illness and Disabilities

Congresswoman’s legislation would empower state and local governments to create mental health first responder units

Congresswoman Katie Porter (CA-45), along with Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), Congressman Tony Cárdenas (CA-29), and Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon (PA-05), today reintroduced legislation to reduce violence against individuals with mental illness and disabilities. The Mental Health Justice Act would make it easier for state and local governments to send trained mental health professionals instead of police when 911 is called because an individual is experiencing a mental health crisis. Fifty-seven members joined Rep. Porter in introducing the bill, and companion legislation was introduced in the Senate by Senators Elizabeth Warren (MA), Amy Klobuchar (MN), and Cory Booker (NJ).

“We should be connecting people in crisis to care, not tossing them in jail,” Congresswoman Porter said. “Mental illness is not a crime, and we have to stop treating it like one. Most police officers are not trained to care for individuals experiencing mental health crises, which too often tragically leads to unnecessary violence. I’m proud to reintroduce this legislation that would make our communities safer for all.”

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.

“We should be sending culturally competent and trained mental health professionals to respond to community members in the midst of a mental health crisis” said Congresswoman Pressley. “The Mental Health Justice Act would help end the criminalization of our neighbors with disabilities and provide them with the resources and care that they need and deserve. I’m grateful to Congresswoman Porter and colleagues for their partnership on this important bill.”

“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,” Congressman Cárdenas said. “We must drastically change policing in America – that means not treating everyone as a threat. 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 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,” Congresswoman Scanlon said. “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. 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.”

“Transforming our punitive system of locking people up into one that invests in community resources that lift people up is long overdue. I'm glad to partner with my colleagues in support of the Mental Health Justice Act to help ensure that individuals with mental illness and disabilities are kept safe and receive the support they need,” said Senator Warren.

“As a former prosecutor, I’ve seen firsthand how the justice system can fail people struggling with mental illness,” said Senator Klobuchar. “We need to ensure people have access to the support they need, especially in moments of crisis when emergency responders are called. By dispatching mental health professionals via 911 in situations where a person is experiencing a mental health crisis, this legislation will help keep some of the most vulnerable members of our community safe.” 

The Mental Health Justice Act is endorsed by 40 advocacy organizations: Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Center for American Progress, Center for Law and Social Policy, NAACP LDF, Human Rights Watch, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, The Arc of the United States, National Association of County Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability Directors, National Health Care for the Homeless Council, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Clinical Social Work Association, National Association for Rural Mental Health, American Association on Health and Disability, Lakeshore Foundation, American Group Psychotherapy Association, National Alliance to Advance Adolescent Health, Kennedy Forum, Postpartum International, Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness, American Association of Suicidology, American Association for Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work, Disability Concerns - Christian Reformed Church in North America, Disability Concerns - Reformed Church in America, Justice in Aging, Trevor Project, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Autistic Self Advocacy Network, TASH, American Society of Addiction Medicine, 2020 Mom, Union for Reform Judaism, American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Psychological Association, Public Citizen, Autism Society of America, CommunicationsFIRST, Association of University Centers on Disabilities, National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Drug Policy Alliance.

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 the same as other types of care was recently signed into law. Last month, she reintroduced legislation that would 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 last year. She has also backed legislation to roll back a blanket shield for law enforcement officers when they violate the Constitution, as well as legislation to make it easier to hold people accountable in criminal cases involving civil rights violations.

A one-page explanation of the Mental Health Justice Act can be found HERE.