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Hartselle Enquirer

AG: State needs mental health funding

By Michael Wetzel

For the Enquirer

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, in Decatur July 27, said he believes better mental health services would cut the state’s crime rate, and he hopes the Legislature addresses the growing need.

A local lawmaker said there is an increasing recognition among lawmakers that the state needs to increase funding for mental health services.

Marshall and Gov. Kay Ivey were in Decatur to honor area law enforcement officers. Marshall said a proposed crisis center in Decatur is vital to law enforcement as well as mental health patients.

The Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama is in the early stages of planning a 16-bed, 12,000-square-foot crisis center along U.S. Highway 31 South.

“There’s a link between mental illness and some who are engaged in criminal conduct,” Marshall said after the meeting. “Historically, we’ve seen jails become places for those with mental illness until they can get help. It’s important for us to find vehicles for those who need help and for those with mental illness to have that access, particularly in crisis situations.”

He said the crisis center could help ease some of the burden for law enforcement officers.

“It’s certainly a worthy investment – not only from the criminal justice side but also to help restore people to better health,” Marshall said. “I’ve seen that historically in my career: Addiction, mental health or both (are the cause of many crimes). We’ve seen too many times law enforcement officers become community health officers, which is not their role.”

He said he’ll continue to promote the need for more state funding to combat mental illness.

“I can explain the need,” he said. “Definitely there is that overlay between the two. The better Alabama can provide mental health services, the less strain you will see on the criminal justice system.”

Morgan County Sheriff Ron Puckett, whose department hosted Tuesday’s Back the Blue barbecue at Cook Museum of Natural Science, said mental health issues also cause problems locally.

“Mental health continues to be one of the leading issues we deal with,” Puckett said. “It is the root of many of our calls and is an underlying issue in many of our drug and property crimes. We continue to seek more options besides jail.

“While we do what we can, law enforcement and jails were not designed to be the primary care facility for those experiencing a mental health crisis,” he added. “Due to the lack of options and available facilities, that is the role we are left to play.”

State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said it appears “considerably more money” will be available to address the mental health services issue in the fiscal 2023 budget. He said a booming economy is driving an increase in tax revenue.

“When (the Legislature) reconvenes in January, it will certainly be in discussions,” he said. “If COVID doesn’t derail us, there should be significant resources available for mental health facilities. It takes money, and there should be an understanding and appropriations available for mental health services.”

Orr said awareness is increasing among lawmakers that such services are crucial.

“The political winds are blowing in a good direction to fund more mental health services to help these individuals before they wind up in the hands of law enforcement,” he said.

Randy Vest, District 2 Morgan County commissioner, said the issue has not fallen on deaf ears at the county level.

“We know it’s a growing issue,” he said. “We know we’ve got to get those with mental health issues out of our county jails. The county jail is not where a mental health patient needs to be housed. They need to be in a mental health facility where they can receive help.

“We’ll be open for discussions to see what we can do. There’s a definite need.”

The purpose of the Back the Blue barbecue was to express appreciation for area law enforcement officers.

“You all protect our liberties in this country, our freedoms and civil liberties. You put yourself between us and harm’s way. I’m on your side. You stand strong, and I will stand with you and support you,” said Ivey, who has announced she will seek reelection.

Marshall said negative national media attention is unfairly stigmatizing law enforcement.

“For every George Floyd case, (there are) tens of thousands, I’d say millions, of positive contacts between law enforcement officers and the community. That is the fact,” he said. “Officers’ courage has changed lives … It is important they see us as partners, not outsiders or enemies in the community. It is a difficult job to have.”

Marshall and Puckett warned about a shortage of people entering the law enforcement profession.

Puckett said being good role models in the community is important to recruiting new officers and sustaining strong departments.

“We have to display character and integrity, be men and women of honor,” he said. “We need people to come behind us to be in law enforcement. We need young people who want to say, ‘I want to be like him, be like her.'”

He said he has six openings for deputies.

“God’s called me. God’s called you,” he told the officers.

 

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