After two announcements came out last week about steps Pima County, and the State of Arizona are taking to address the mental-health crisis, I have to admit I am cautiously optimistic. Gov. Jan Brewer announced on Thursday that the state was able to settle a case that is nearly three decades old by creating a plan to address the state’s problems in terms of providing adequate services to the mentally ill.
The case, Arnold v. Sarn, was first filed in 1981 regarding state-supported care and services for individuals with serious mental illness.
More than 30 years ago, Arnold v. Sarn was filed in Superior Court as a special action on behalf of a class of indigent individuals with serious mental illness. They sought judgment against the Arizona Department of Health Services, the Arizona State Hospital and Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, arguing that these entities had breached state law by failing to create a comprehensive system of community-based mental health care.
While the case stayed in the courts for several decades, Gov. Brewer said last week it has been settled and both sides appear pleased with the results.
Brewer said the state and the plaintiffs in the case have agreed to a menu of community-based services that will be provided to individuals with serious mental illness. State funding is to support programs such as crisis services, employment and housing assistance, case management, family and peer support, life skills training, respite care and medication services. The governor said $39 million is allocated in the new budget to fund these needs.
If these programs are improved and funded as promised, I think Arizona is taking a huge step forward. While the mentally ill are some of the most vulnerable of our population, we seem to ignore their needs, we seem to avoid the problems and then we try to point the finger when something serious happens.
In Pima County, the courts are also taking a leap forward in addressing the problem.
Pima County Superior Court Judge Deborah Bernini has set a new court policy requiring that when someone is found incompetent to stand trial, a special plan of action must be created before that person can be released from jail.
Bernini heads the Superior Court’s Mental Health Court, and has likely seen her share of cases where the defendant is found incompetent, but were just released and forgotten afterward.
In Pima County, a recent news report cited 36 felony cases, including two suspected murderers, where the suspect was found mentally unfit for trial and charges were dismissed. While some of the defendants were civilly committed or given legal guardians, others were just released from jail.
Now, instead of putting the defendants, or the general public at risk, case management is required for all defendants.
If this program works, it too will address major problems this state has with protecting not only the mentally ill, but also the general public from harm.
However, this issue cannot just be a state problem. The federal government also has to get involved. They have to create mandates for citizens who are in need of medical attention, but due to certain laws don’t receive it.
Jared Lee Loughner, the suspected gunman in Tucson’s Jan. 8 shooting that left six dead, and 13 injured, is a perfect example. So many knew he needed help, yet so little could actually be done to make sure he got it before he opened fire that day.