by Rep. Jay Ramras
August 20, 2007
Unfortunately, Valerie's story of someone with mental illness falling through the cracks and not getting treatment they obviously need may be all too common. An alarmingly high number of people with severe mental illness are ending up in our corrections system -- yes, -- but most have not committed major crimes and have either been charged with misdemeanors or minor felonies directly related to the symptoms of their untreated mental illness.
The State of Alaska acknowledges that the largest provider of institutional mental health services in the state is the Department of Corrections. On February 7, 2007, Richard Schmidt, Commissioner of Department of Corrections testified before the House Judiciary Committee. Commissioner Schmidt reported some amazing numbers. The Department of Corrections processes 33,000 prisoners annually, and that more than 13,000 will have some type of mental health problem, which is a 23% increase from 2001. Approximately, 40 percent of Alaskan inmates suffer from mental illness, 18 percent have a serious chronic mental illness and about 14 percent of the Alaska Mental Health Trust beneficiaries were first diagnosed while incarcerated. This means "the system" is failing them.
Representative Les Gara of Anchorage inappropriately suggested that Alaska provide the NICS, a division of the FBI, with a list of Alaskans who have been committed due to mental health issues and preventing these people who have at some point suffered from mental illness, from purchasing guns. This treats people with mental illness as if they were felons. What a wrong approach.
There has also been federal legislation on this issue. On June 13, 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives enacted HR 2640, the "NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007." The intent of HR 2640 is to strengthen gun reporting laws by providing states with financial incentives to comply with reporting requirements and penalties for failure to comply with reporting requirements. The State of Alaska should resist participating in this program.
This NCIS database creates a horrible stigma by creating a false link between criminality and commitment to a mental institution. It is a common misconception that people with mental illness are more violent than people without mental illness, and we all know the dangers of stereotyping. Research shows that there is a small subset of people with mental illness that may pose higher risks of violence and that there are indicators for this violent tendency. The three predictors for an increased risk of violence among the mentally ill are: a past history of violence, non-participation in treatment, and co-occurring abuse of alcohol or drugs. These are the areas where the state should be concentrating its ever dwindling resources.
While everyone agrees that violent or potentially violent individuals should not possess guns, mental illness in itself is not a crime and should never be.
The mentally ill are not criminals. However, it appears that policy in Alaska may be moving towards defining them as such. The mentally ill are defaulting into our criminal justice system at an alarming rate and are providing a rational for some to further isolate this often untreated subset of vulnerable individuals. Participation in the NICS database should be resisted and efforts through local and statewide Behavioral Health offices should be redoubled to honor the strength of individuals who live within our community, who are generally non-violent and want what we all want - quiet enjoyment of our lives.
Received August 13, 2007 - Published August 20, 2007
About: Rep. Jay Ramras (R) is a member of the Alaska State Legislature representing District 10 - Fairbanks.
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