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ON THE DEFENSIVE: Mental health reform key to gun control

Anthony Cotton is a partner at Kuchler & Cotton SC, Waukesha. He is the vice president of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Sometimes lost in the debate over gun control is the fact that this country needs meaningful change to the way in which mental health treatment is ordered, offered and executed.

Serious mental health reform needs to have at least two components. First, we need to loosen the standards required to involuntarily commit a mentally ill person to a hospital. Second, money from Wisconsin’s $1.3 billion biennial corrections budget should be diverted from prisons so we can properly pay for mental health treatment courts.

People who suffer from pervasive mental disorders often are identified easily, well before anything calamitous happens. Family members, friends and colleagues notice that person’s deterioration, yet they usually feel powerless to stop it.

Too often, they are presented with only one option: call the police. Law enforcement, however, is the wrong agency to handle these sensitive situations.

Sure, the person can be placed in jail, but that does nothing to solve the underlying problem. The person could be charged with a crime, but our pretrial monitoring agencies lack the resources to assess and treat chronically mentally ill offenders.

Too often, the person ends up a convicted criminal. He or she is placed on probation, but the probation department cannot handle most of these offenders.

For example, when the offenders’ mental health deteriorates, agents typically initiate revocation proceedings and house those people in jail for the balances of their sentences. Our jails and prisons are packed with mentally ill people.

We are spending about $1.3 billion on corrections in Wisconsin. A substantial amount of this money should be diverted from the prisons and used to establish treatment courts, staffed by mental health professionals.

These courts closely would monitor mentally ill offenders for substantial periods of time. The professionals would have the background and tools to assess and treat the offenders. This would alleviate the burden on the probation departments and let us close, or reduce the capacity in, some of our prisons.

Treatment courts are not new. Many counties in Wisconsin already have specialty courts such as “alcohol court,” and “drug court.”

We treat offenders with addiction differently than offenders without addiction. Unlike alcohol and drug addicts, the mentally ill don’t create their condition.

While gun control needs to be part of the debate, we are not going to reduce the violence until we have meaningful reform to our mental health system and until we create an environment in which the sick can get help.

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