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Out of Medical Research and Mental Health Reform, Criminal Justice Reform

Out of Medical Research and Mental Health Reform, Criminal Justice Reform

President Obama Signs a Bill

On Tuesday, December 13, President Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act into law. This bill, which passed with broad bipartisan support, contains many provisions related to medical research, including a cancer research program named for Vice President Biden’s late son, Beau Biden. It also included much-needed changes to the way our criminal justice system treats those with mental illness.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 56% of state prisoners, 45% of federal prisoners and 64% of those in local jails suffer from mental health problems. In total, over half of America’s incarcerated population – 1.2 million people – has a mental illness. Historically, a “tough on crime” approach to public safety has ignored the unique challenges faced by those with mental health issues, over-criminalizing this community and failing to provide them with the care they need. However, the inclusion of criminal justice reforms in the 21st Century Cures Act shows how this mentality is changing, as legislators from across the political spectrum are recognizing the need to provide treatment to incarcerated people with mental illnesses.

The 21st Century Cures Act amends the Second Chance Act to allow state and local governments to use funding for reentry programs on mental health treatment, giving those with mental illness who have paid their debt to society more tools to help them return to daily life. It also reauthorizes important funding for mental health courts and crisis intervention teams and requires the Attorney General to direct federal judges to pilot mental health court programs. Finally, it authorizes more funding to train police officers on how to respond to situations when someone with a mental illness is involved.

Discussing criminal justice, Rabbi Hayyim David Halevy writes: “By all opinions, punishment is not a goal unto itself. Rather, it is intended to return the criminal to doing right or so that they will listen and hear” (Aseh L’kha Rav 3:57). These words remind us that our tradition envisions a system that promotes public safety by using the most effective tools we have to help those who have done wrong change their ways. Although it is a complicated piece of legislation that touches many different areas of healthcare, with the 21st Century Cures Act, there are now more options for criminals with mental illnesses to get the treatment they need so that they will not reoffend.

While this legislation will make a difference for many incarcerated people, there is much more to do as we pursue a criminal justice system that is truly just. Urge your members of Congress to support bipartisan sentencing reform legislation today.

Jacob Kraus is the campaign organizer at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, leading the Reform Movement’s Urgency of Now campaigns for criminal justice reform and immigrant justice. Based at the Union for Reform Judaism offices in New York City, Jacob grew up in Cincinnati, OH, where his family is affiliated with Rockdale Temple. He is a 2015 graduate of Macalester College.

Jacob Kraus

Published: 12/29/2016