Advocates for stronger mental health services in Idaho have had a frustrating time in recent years. When budgets get tight and cuts have to be made, it’s easy to view mental health services as optional luxuries, and that funding tends to be one of the first items on the chopping block.
But there’s a good chance the tide may be turning in the Gem State, for two reasons. First was the Connecticut school shooting tragedy right before Christmas; the second is increased revenues to the state.
In his State of the State address Monday, Gov. Butch Otter predicted a 5.3 percent revenue increase for fiscal year 2014 and will recommend a 3.1 percent increase in general fund spending. Of course, lawmakers don’t have to follow that guideline, but there’s no doubt that Idaho’s economy is improving, as also indicated by declining unemployment.
As you know, the mass murder of 20 young children and six adults last month has touched off a stormy debate over how to make our society safer. Yet for all the bluster from both camps over gun control, the reality is that just about everyone who has a gun will get to keep it. Don’t expect a SWAT team to enter your home and take away your firearms.
So the real focus should be on how we can better help people with mental health problems from becoming violent criminals. Otter cited that renewed focus Monday when he urged lawmakers to approve $70 million in bonds for a 579-bed secure mental health facility at the prison complex in Boise.
More than one in four inmates in the state prison system have a mental illness. A separate facility where those people can be treated — as opposed to lumping them in with the rest of the prison population — makes sense. It also gives courts more options in sentencing.
This isn’t the first time the idea has been debated, and it ultimately failed a few years ago over concerns about operating expenses. It costs a lot of money to train and pay staff — many of whom will need to be certified in treating the mentally ill, and they don’t come cheap. Those concerns will need to be addressed adequately if this idea is to get off the ground in 2013.
Some have criticized Otter’s proposal because it doesn’t address preventive care — treating people before they become criminals. If we could get to them earlier, maybe they wouldn’t commit crimes — including violent ones. In addition to being more humane, it would reduce crime.
That’s a valid point, one legislators should consider over the next several weeks — especially members of the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee, which decides how much money each government agency gets.
But preventive care is not always as simple as it sounds. Everyone has rights, and those we suspect to be mentally ill may resist efforts to be labeled as such. We can’t force them to be treated. They have due process, the same as anyone else, and some troubled people are very convincing at concealing it. We may not know until it’s too late.
Still, a new mental health facility in Boise — providing a cost-effective operational model can be presented — would be a good start. We already know these people are mentally ill, and we already know they’re prone to commit crime. Most will be released back to society at some point, so in their interest and the interest of public safety, they should get specific treatment for their illnesses.
It’s an imperfect world, and we’re flawed creatures, so there’s no way to prevent all bad things from happening. There are reasonable actions we can take to lower the risk, and this one is logical.
* Our view is based on the majority opinions of the Idaho Press-Tribune editorial board. Members of the board are Publisher Matt Davison, Managing Editor Vickie Holbrook, Opinion Editor Phil Bridges and community members Kim Keller, Carlos Soriano, Taylor Raney, Ken Pieksma and Nicole Gibbs.