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February 25, 2021

Pressley, Porter, Cárdenas, Scanlon Re-Introduce Bill to Reduce Violence Against Individuals with Mental Illness and Disabilities

Bill Text (PDF) | One-Pager (PDF)

WASHINGTON – Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), along with Congresswoman Katie Porter (CA-45), 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 an emergency hotline is called because an individual is experiencing a mental health crisis.

Fifty-four members joined the lawmakers in introducing the bill, and companion legislation was introduced in the Senate by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Cory Booker (D-NJ).

“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.”

“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 a mental health crisis, which too often tragically leads to unnecessary violence. I’m proud to reintroduce this legislation that would make our communities safer for all.”

“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.”

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.

The Mental Health Justice Act is endorsed by a robust coalition of 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.

A one-pager on the Mental Health Justice Act can be viewed here.

Throughout her time in Congress, Congresswoman Pressley has led efforts to dismantle and reimagine our criminal legal system and prioritize trauma-informed mental health services instead of policing and criminalization. 

  • In November 2019, she introduced H.Res 702, The People’s Justice Guarantee, a comprehensive legislative framework that lays out a bold, new vision for justice in the American criminal legal system. The groundbreaking resolution contains provisions calling for the decriminalization of mental illness and the creation of first-responder agencies and community partnerships to respond to people in crisis who are living with substance use disorders, mental health conditions, and in poverty, in place of armed officers.
  • Earlier this month, she introduced H.R. 8544, the STRONG Support for Children Act, a bill that takes a holistic, reparative, and community-based approach to addressing the growing crisis of childhood trauma and recognizes the role that systemic racism and inequalities have played in traumatizing children for generations.
  • In December, she introduced H.R. 5325, the Ending PUSHOUT Act, to end the traumatic criminalization of Black, brown, and indigenous girls in school. Earlier this summer, she introduced H.R. 7848, the Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act, to reduce the growing presence of school-based police officers and invest in school nurses, social workers, mental health practitioners, and other professionals trained in trauma-aware practices.


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