Justice Reform Must Include Mental Health Reforms

Recently there has been an increased awareness of Justice Reforms in America. According to the Brookings Institution, it reports that we are spending $80 billion a year on incarceration. However, according to the U.S. government, we spend on average $3.5 trillion on health care annually. I raise the two separate issues to pinpoint a severe flaw that both systems are broken and in disrepair.

To help find a solution, some lawmakers have introduced policy allowing the privatization of prisons systems suggesting a reduction burdening taxpayers. Yet, these private prisons profit $7.4 billion annually. Let that sink in for a minute. If a private prison can turn a profit, then why isn’t our national corrections system rolling in surplus? Trillions of dollars on health care spending or roughly $10K per person and we should be the most mentally and physically fit people in the world? But that is not even an actuality in comparison to other nations with free health care. But it’s more complicated than that – because we choose to make it complicated.

Some could argue that jails and prisons provide health care, mental health assessments, and medication to inmates. While true, it holds two temporary but critical flaws. First, the inmate must volunteer and often establish a co-pay payment while incarcerated leaving many in additional debt when released. Second, once an inmate has been set free, there is no continuation of health services of any kind. While there may be low-cost municipal services to the formerly incarcerated the stigma of finding a job, housing, transportation, food, and reassimilation into a skeptic and often hostile community serves no real purpose or plan for successful outcomes. A practical reason for high recidivism rates is that the mentally ill are the most likely to return to jail or prison because they will have housing, food, reassimilation of structure, and medicine. However, somewhat like the perception of registered sex offenders is viewed as all-encompassing violent criminals. The same could be said in how we label those in the mental health community as criminals when in the judicial system.

The reality is that for justice reforms to deliver a sustainable solution the legal system it must collaborate and establish a strategy. A part of that strategy is to include health care and free easy to access proven mental health programs. A reason our health care system is broken because of the lack of accessibility and wage to pay for preventative health services. That same argument extends towards mental health both post and preventative. When an individual pleads for help, but no resources are readily available then there begins the problem in how we should be addressing it. However, if that same individual commits a crime because the bureaucracy fails to establish relationships with health care providers, then it will always be a win-win for prisons and recidivism.

Nobody will claim that justice reform is an easy task. Ultimately, it will be an expensive endeavor both politically, financially, and with strong emotional discourse. But if we make an attempt to focus on a long term strategy regulated by nonpartisan individuals its success may be achievable and results driven. If American society can experience sizable shifts in capitalism where factories that once monopolized the world were replaced with higher skilled and improved conditions why can’t we create and collaborate a rational plan to reduce incarcerations and a clogged judicial system with health organizations that understand data proven methods that will deliver immediate results? If we can invest in soldiers to train them to be leaders on a battlefield, train college students to create inventions to change the world then we can certainly change the dynamic of our outdated judicial and prison systems by reinvesting in proven and life-saving methodologies with long-term cost savings visible in the horizon.

Protect and Serve

Law enforcement careers are perhaps the most difficult to maintain. Many criminal and civil matters require attention and proper procedure. Over the past few years, our nation has witnessed a severe decline in public trust and confidence in typical police situations. Personally, I have respect for the badge but losing faith in how specific police procedures were and are handled. Deep down I am attempting to replenish my soul with support for those that wear the badge to keep my community safe by being an active advocate of my community. But I question if law enforcement, in general, has become too large of an enterprise business to handle the population for which it serves?

Decades ago the Los Angelas Police Department introduced the motto, “Protect and Serve.” That slogan was designed to serve as a mantra to regaining public trust within its community by maintaining a constant relationship with its people. Other law enforcement agencies began to implement the same slogan as a uniformed message that its department too, is accountable to the community. But I have a serious question about the literal belief of “protect and serve?” Isn’t Protect and Serve a universal statement of equality to servicing the community? There are programs to keep kids off the streets funded by many police agencies. But what about plans to prevent felons, first offenders, the homeless, mentally ill, sex offenders, race relations, LGBT, or other programs that make up a community? There are a sprinkling of departments that implement such programs but rarely do law enforcement agencies indeed protect and serve equally. The fact is that police have a business plan to surveil, investigate, create sting operations, traps and sometimes entrapments to snare wrongdoers. Wouldnt it be more cost effective and efficient if that protect and serve motto was put to the test to reconnect with the community and find some answers or redirection methods? Isn’t that what sociology and criminal justice degrees are intended to facilitate?

Perhaps a reason that law enforcement has grown and social worker jobs have declined is because there is a business model in place to keep offender growth high levels. It seems somewhat humorous that when a police chief speaks to a community about how its department has helped reduce crime, there always seems to be a motion for more money and resources for the growing threat to “out of control crime” in the area. It is somewhat like having a sale on an item only to mark it down but suddenly raise the price claiming the thing is about to run out. It is an amusing game that citizens should take a more significant look at.

Let’s face facts, police departments are too big and widely overfunded. Officers cannot be social workers, mental health physicians, community outreach, therapists, cat rescuers, and homeless advocates at the same time. But that is the design Americans have developed and wonder why mental health is a back burner? But law enforcement can be a resource to help facilitate and redirect to those programs. That is where protect and serve can be put to practical use. Instead of harassing sex offenders about homeless situations or where they can live or work one would think that protect and serve mantra would help an individual to assimilate to the community. Instead, police have unintentionally created its own barrier to communities by using rhetoric such as, “if you didn’t commit that crime you wouldn’t be in this situation.” The fact is that citizens help pay the salaries of police officers are sometimes the very ones left behind because nobody is protecting and serving that part of the community. To me, that is one of the reasons there is a low level of confidence with police. An officer substantiates and determines credibility by using a police check rather than trying to connect and find common ground. If police departments want to save some money, replace protect and serve with I only protect and serve if it comes over the radio. At least that is more realistic to today’s cultural standards.

Law enforcement is the first line of duty and protection of a community. Decades of growth and planning have increased agency funding taking away from social workers, qualified therapists, and dedicated physicians. Perhaps its time to trim police budgets and put that money into programs that help transition a community in need. Funding social worker agencies can and will help reduce recidivism rates. There should never be a fear of a badge to help another human being. Removing that badge and replacing with a listening person without an agenda that could lead to criminal charges is an excellent first step and reducing our enormous prison and probation population.  Maybe now is the time to reassess protect and serve by allowing those with better qualifications to do their jobs rather than police.

Florida Failed Nikolas Cruz

Throughout the motions of life, there will always be horrible scenes or incidents. Sadly society has become somewhat desensitized to many violent issues. However, what is remarkable is how on one hand society desires to create safe spaces or concerns yet, on the other hand, responds in a manner no different than witch hunters or extreme disciplinarians. There is no desire within American culture to remedy violent behavior or mental illness except allowing law enforcement to silence particular crimes.

It is as if mental health physicians and specialists are utilized after the fact rather than proactive. For example, a typical American social worker is usually summonsed during a crisis rather than before the crisis. In Europe social workers are a part of the norm rather than a stigma, usually based in America, to react to issues.

The recent shooting by Nikolas Cruz in a Florida school was perhaps the most tragic since the Columbine school shootings. However, what did we learn from the Columbine shootings? In 18 years since the Columbine shootings and five years since the Sandy Hook Elementary school shootings, we have not learned or implemented a single act towards mental health reforms or gun safety.

In each of the massacres, the perpetrator was a loner, ostracized, volatile, and experiencing some form of trauma. To make matters worse, there was at least a minimum level of raised awareness that intervention or red flags should be implemented for the safety of themselves and others. Very little, if anything, was done. Instead, the focus is to shift into this witch hunting mode to place all the burden on the wrongdoer and label them in the descriptive text as a monster, assassin, disturbed, or other labels as the lowest form of humanity. The most interesting part about this is that these same words were perhaps used before crimes yet nothing was executed to help remedy a foreseeable tragedy from occurring.

While it may be true, we should be responsible for our actions it should be indicative that we may want to become advocates towards facilitating better actions. There is no need to criminalize our intent. Instead, to become better at identifying potential threats we must learn to become proactive whereas not to create further harm. Society must stop becoming a lynch mob during a crisis and learn to become facilitators and advocates of mental awareness.

Mr. Cruz is a young man with a very troubled past. Being placed up for adoption only to have his newly adoptive parents die separately during his youth perpetuate the band-aid effect we place upon youth. If we spent more money on mental health rather than the end of year testing, we might see some better outcomes in our educational system. What Mr. Cruz did was heinous but inexcusable. However, it is my observation that Mr. Cruz was not in a clear mental focus to make any reasonable judgment. For that, the people of Florida failed Mr. Cruz and the students that were involved in the school shooting. It is a loss for both sides of the issue.

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