There is a humanitarian side, as well as a practical aspect, to a new bill currently making its way through the Rhode Island legislature.
Introduced by Senate Committee on Health & Human Services Chairman Joshua Miller (D-Dist. 28, Cranston, Providence), Bill S-0652 calls for the state to implement an “evidence-based behavioral health care program for incarcerated adults with co-occurring substance use and mental disorders.” This program would be created by the Secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services Rhode Island, Elizabeth Roberts.
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate on April 7. It now awaits approval by the R.I. House of Representatives.
Miller feels strongly that this type of program would help alleviate the current cycle of crime and recidivism caused by releasing prisoners who have not be rehabilitated. “These are people who are going to be released into the general public,” he said. “If they have consistent mental health, drug treatment or other behavioral treatment while they’re incarcerated, they’ll have a smoother, probably less expensive, experience once they’re released.”
In other words, it’s more effective to treat prisoners while they’re incarcerated, as opposed to dealing with the aftermath of individuals likely to return to the corrections system. From the humanitarian standpoint, mental health and substance abuse treatment for prisoners provides better, and more sustainable, outcomes, he believes.
The program is also projected to save the state because individuals receiving treatment will have a lower rate of recidivism and require fewer services down the road.
A spate of get-tough-on-crime policies in the past few decades has resulted in the United States having the highest percentage of incarcerated citizens in the world. According to a National Research Council report, 707 of every 100,000 Americans are currently in prison. That figure is five to 10 times higher than the per capita rate in Western Europe and other democracies.
An emphasis on punishment, rather than rehabilitation, seems counterproductive, Miller said. “If someone has an addiction issue or mental illness, [treatment] is better for the general public and it’s better for corrections.”
Miller decided to initiate the bill after having read several articles about the lack of mental health services available to prisoners. “There is a high percentage of individuals who don’t have access to treatment,” he said. “One way to solve it is to allow for a funded program to provide mental health services.”
Mental health advocates have been united in their support for this type of approach.
“We’ve been pressing for several years for something to happen, from an advocacy standpoint,” noted Charles Gross, CAGS, executive director of NAMI Rhode Island. “It’s an important step in breaking the cycle but traditionally, it’s been very difficult to get programs into the prisons. It’s a matter of cost.”
Rhode Island has applied for a federal Second Chance Act grant that would provide funding for this type of treatment. Based on the timing of the application, Miller is confident the grant will be awarded.
It has been estimated that 25 percent of Rhode Island’s more than 3,000 prisoners suffer from some type of mental or substance abuse disorder. Should Miller’s bill become law, they will be eligible to receive treatment before being released into the general population.
“How can a public or law official not see that as part of the solution?” he asked. “That’s why there’s a lot of federal money available for these programs.”
By Howard Newman