Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Article excerpt

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. …

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