Mental health training urged for police, district judges in Pa.

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The state House has passed a bill that would require mental health training for police officers and district judges -- a first step in what the sponsor hopes will be a push to send more mentally ill offenders to treatment and fewer to jails and prisons.

The House passed the legislation, 195-0, on Tuesday. It now goes to the Senate.

Introduced by Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, D-Berks, who is minority chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the bill would require that mental health training be included in annual training for municipal and state police. The training would include an overview of various psychiatric disorders and of treatment programs that could serve as an alternative to incarceration, depending on the kinds of charges offenders face.

The bill would require that similar topics be covered in a state-run training program for district judges.

Mr. Caltagirone said he introduced the bill because jails and prisons have been filling with mentally ill offenders, some of whom were locked up for minor crimes and many of whom, because of the nature of prison life, won't see their conditions improve while incarcerated.

Pennsylvania's experience is not unique. In a 2010 report, researchers led by psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey reported that more than three times as many people with mental illness were in jails and prisons than in state hospitals across the country, a trend attributed to the closing of state hospitals and failure to establish strong community-based support systems.

"No one built an infrastructure to deal with them," said Michelle Farquhar, a Shadyside resident and legislative and policy counsel for the Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center founded by Dr. Torrey.

In "After Mayview," a series prompted by the approaching five-year anniversary of Mayview State Hospital's closure, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last month reported that state budget cuts had eroded access to outpatient care and that some community hospital and law enforcement officials cited an urgent need to re-establish inpatient beds.

At Mr. Caltagirone's urging, the House in May directed the Joint State Government Commission to review mental health treatment practices. Depending on the panel's findings, he said, he may try to take money the Department of Corrections is saving on two closed prisons and use it to beef up inpatient and outpatient mental health services.

The "mental health system in this state has just fallen apart," he said.

Mr. Caltagirone said police officers and district judges -- those having initial contact with mentally ill offenders -- can play a vital role in getting them into treatment.

He said the training also would teach officers how to defuse incidents involving mental illness -- a need highlighted in a recent Treatment Advocacy Center report that found untreated mental illness a significant factor in fatal shootings of offenders by police officers. He said last week's shooting of a motorist near the U.S. Capitol is one more example of the need for police to have the training.

Some police departments already provide such training. Last month, for example, about 25 Pittsburgh and suburban officers completed 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Team training.

"Family members have reported a noticeable difference when a Crisis Intervention Team-trained officer responds to a crisis and is able to intervene, assess and engage with the person to determine the needed intervention rather than an automatic arrest or hospitalization. Knowing this, families sometimes call and request a CIT officer. Likewise, mental health training would benefit magistrates," Terri Carik, service coordination unit director for Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, said in an email.

Ms. Farquhar, a lawyer and psychiatric nurse, said she supports Mr. Caltagirone's legislation but stressed that a more effective involuntary commitment law and stronger treatment system are better strategies for keeping people with psychiatric conditions out of the justice system. District Judge Blaise Larotonda of Mt. Lebanon made a similar point.

"A lot of mental health facilities have been closing, and sometimes our only option is jail, which is not the right option," he said.

The state will save about $23 million in 2013-14 and additional sums after that by closing state prisons in Hempfield and Cambria County. Mr. Caltagirone wants to use some of that money to improve inpatient and outpatient mental health services and begin a "major shift in emphasis from incarceration to treatment." The Treatment Advocacy Center, which tracks such efforts, says much improvement is needed in Pennsylvania and around the country.

The Corrections Department supports legislation that diverts offenders from prisons, spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said. But she said the department also is taking steps to ensure proper treatment of mentally ill prisoners, including Crisis Intervention Team training for corrections officers and a peer mentoring program for prisoners.

electionspa - state - health

Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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