- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Last weekend’s tragedy in Tucson is helping focus needed attention on the intersec-tion between serious mental illness and crime. Modern society prides itself on being open-minded, but there’s still much room for progress in how we look at the mentally ill.

In most cases, proper medical intervention can work wonders. Some problems can’t be definitively cured, but they can be managed well enough for sufferers to lead decent lives without threatening anybody. While greater psychiatric resources in Arizona probably wouldn’t have warded off Saturday’s shooting for the simple reason that nobody seems to have tried placing shooter Jared Loughner into the state’s system, it stands to reason that other potential tragedies can be averted nationwide through more cost-effective mental-health systems.

An initiative called “Right on Crime,” headlined by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Attorney General Edwin Meese III and former Education Secretary William Bennett, offers some solutions for relevant issues ranging from juvenile justice to substance abuse and prison reform. At the center of discussion are programs already working in states. For instance, Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) has used special drug courts, frequent drug tests and other intervention to help cut the recidivism rate of drug offenders by 50 percent.

Drug courts also have been an important part of major reforms in Texas, along with replacing juvenile incarceration for certain crimes with a system of closely monitored probation. The combined reforms not only freed up prison space but saved $2 billion over five years. The freed-up funds have been used in productive ways, including special treatment for drug addicts and the mentally ill. The state’s crime rate has dropped 10 percent over five years.

Allocating state resources wisely is vital to preventing crime because $10 million a year creates 1,500 additional slots in outpatient mental health care. These patients otherwise might cycle between walking loose without care or being incarcerated for minor offenses, thus taking up prison cells better reserved for hardened criminals. “Some really dangerous people would be going out the back door of prison because so many [mentally ill] people who [if treated] aren’t necessarily serious threats to public safety are going into the prison front doors,” Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, told The Washington Times.

Many tragedies are preventable. One effective strategy that needs wider implementation is to make the mentally ill into patients rather than inmates.