BOSTON -- Two prominent mental health groups are recommending expanded police training on dealing with the mentally ill and development of new court diversion programs to provide care and treatment for those charged with low-level crimes.
The recommendations, being supported by a number of police officials and legislators, were released at the Statehouse Thursday and follow a study funded by the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts.
A report of the study cited estimates from Massachusetts county sheriffs that 42 percent of jail inmates have a mental illness and that 26 percent have a major mental illness.
Based on an examination of current practices, the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts and the Association for Behavioral Healthcare recommended a series of initiatives to prevent cycling of people who have mental illnesses through prisons, jails, emergency shelters and hospital emergency rooms.
Massachusetts should set a goal of reducing arrests of people in mental health crisis and improve access to mental health treatment as an alternative to arrest or jail, the study said.
A major finding of the study is that law enforcement is not well equipped to improve police handling of mentally ill people.
"Massachusetts police training is poorly resourced and decentralized, making it a challenge to improve police training on mental illness," the report stated.
The groups recommend development of a new and modernized police training curriculum for approaching emotional disturbance calls and use of available emergency service programs such as crisis intervention teams, mental health first aid programs and the state mental health diversion and integration program.
Police training should "ensure that all police officers receive training in the new curriculum either in the police academy or in continuing education," the report said.
Other recommendations call for courts to partner with the Department of Mental Health and MassHealth to apply for grants to put a strategic plan in place for expanding court diversion options for people with mental illness.
The groups also recommend that commercial insurance plans be required to cover psychiatric emergency programs so all residents would have access to affordable psychiatric crisis intervention services.
Robert Antonioni of Leominster, a NAMI board member and former state senator, said action is needed.
"The Legislature needs to embrace changes to the system that will prevent pointless charges being brought against people who need treatment rather than a jail cell," Mr. Antonioni said.
Framingham Deputy Police Chief Craig Davis said there is a need for greater cooperation between the mental health and criminal justice system "to make sure people get the help they need."
State Rep. James O'Day, D-West Boylston, said the report confirms there is a problem and that it is "fixable."
"We need to train our police and first responders. We must give them the tools to help people get treatment, not punishment," Mr. O'Day said in a statement supporting the initiative.
Janice B. Yost, president and chief executive officer of the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, said the $38,500 report provides needed information on proven strategies to provide appropriate mental health services and diversions from the criminal justice system.
"Providing advanced training and clinical supports to the police offers a more enlightened, humane, and cost effective approach to serving both the public safety interests and health care needs of our state," Ms. Yost said.