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Friedman testifies for mental-health center, cites life-wasting prisons

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Senator Cindy F. Friedman, Democrat of Arlington, has testified before the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery in support of S.1091, an Act establishing a restoration center in Middlesex County, an initiative originally filed by the late Senator Donnelly.

The bill would direct a large group of public-safety and mental-health experts to develop a pilot program in Middlesex County to serve as a jail-diversion and -treatment facility for individuals experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

According to data provided by NAMI Massachusetts, an organization that also testified in support of the bill on Tuesday, Sept. 12, about 25 percent of state correctional inmates and as many as 50 percent of county jail and house of correction detainees and inmates are receiving mental-health services to some degree.

In additional, about 14 percent of male and 30 percent of female inmates are believed to have serious mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression.

“These statistics are appalling,” Friedman said in her testimony. “Our courts, jails and correctional facilities have become the de-facto treatment providers for many of our most vulnerable and sickest residents at a huge cost that serves neither them nor the commonwealth. At an approximate cost of $57,000 per inmate, we are wasting money and wasting lives.”

Individuals with mental illness are disproportionately incarcerated for minor “quality-of-life” offenses, such as trespassing and public intoxication, yet often experience longer stays in jails, houses of correction, and prisons than their nonmentally ill counterparts.

The goal of this bill is to give police officers another option for diverting individuals with behavioral health conditions from arrest and connecting them to appropriate treatment services.

“We need to move individuals out of our jails cells and emergency rooms and into appropriate treatment,” Friedman said, “And one of the most effective ways to do this is to help our police and those with mental illness avoid arrest in the first place.”

The proposed center would include a delivery system that provides 24-hour specialized services for people suffering from mental illness, including inpatient and outpatient services. In addition, the legislation directs the center to develop a formal process in which diverse state agencies can collaborate and communicate across the mental health, physical health, social service and criminal justice systems in order to provide seamless care.

The concept for S.1091 is based on similar models of delivery in Bexar County, Texas, and Miami Dade, Fla. Both have been highly successful in reducing incarceration and emergency room visits, adversarial interactions with law enforcement, court usage and all the associated costs that are incurred when proper treatment is denied.

In concluding her testimony, Friedman said, “We need to follow the lead of many states across the nation and apply our resources and our energy to proven programs that help people get and maintain the treatment they need in a system that supports their well-being. S.1091 would allow us to begin that process.”

Friedman serves as a member of the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery. She represents the 4th Middlesex district, which includes Arlington, Billerica, Burlington, Woburn and precincts 1-2 and 4-7 in Lexington. 

This news announcement was published Friday, Sept. 15, 2017.

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