Testimony favors diversion agreements for the mentally ill

0 | Legislature, Mental Health

— A father whose mentally ill son has had several encounters with police testified today in favor of a bill that would create a legal framework so that low-level offenders who are mentally ill could get treatment for their problems instead of jail time.

“When persons like my son are not treated, they do strange things that involve breaking laws,” said Alan Brumbaugh. “Thank God, my son breaks things rather than people.”

Brumbaugh appeared before the House Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice. He said his 29-year-old son was recently arrested in Wichita after breaking several windows. His son, he said, has "schizoaffective disorder," which is characterized by recurring episodes of elevated or depressed moods.

“As a parent of a child who’s suffering from this disabling disease, I can assure you that getting help for my son has been very, very difficult,” he said. “Navigating the system has driven my family, figuratively speaking, crazy.”

Brumbaugh said he dreaded the possibility of his son ending up in jail. He said his son currently is being evaluated at Larned State Hospital.

His son’s behavior, he said, was driven by his illness, not criminal intent.

“People with mental illness are being punished for their illness,” he said.

House Bill 2498 would encourage prosecutors to enter diversion agreements with nonviolent offenders who have a serious mental illness.

Under the agreements, offenders would be required to comply with treatment regimens set by their community mental health centers for one to three years. They would be expected to pay restitution if they had damaged property.

The agreements would be limited to adults who have been charged with a crime that has not gone to trial.

If an offender did not comply with the proscribed treatment plan, prosecutors would have the option of either rewriting the diversion agreement or resuming criminal proceedings.

In Kansas, the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office is the only prosecutor’s office currently using diversion agreements.

Johnson Count District Attorney Steve Howe said the system in his county allows the mentally ill to work with therapists instead of parole officers.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years," he said, "it’s that someone who has a mental illness is not going to do very well in their dealings with the traditional parole officers who, I have to say, tend to be ‘my way or the highway’ in their approach.”

“Jail is not where these people belong,” said Bryce Abbott, a municipal court judge in Wichita.

Abbott said city prosecutors dropped their diversion-agreement program in November after cuts in state spending caused the local mental health center to cancel its workers’ participation in the program.

“Without the mental health workers, it’s not going to work,” Abbott said.

Supporters said current law would permit similar diversion programs throughout the state, but that the bill would provide a blueprint or framework for counties that might like to start one.

Also testifying in favor of the bill were representatives of the Kansas chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Association of Social Workers, Kansas Mental Health Coalition and the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas.

No one testified against the bill.

The committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Pat Colloton, R-Leawood, said the committee would work the bill next week.