The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 11, 2013

Franken introduces mental health bill to reduce gun violence


Associated Press

ST. CLOUD —

Mental-health professionals, not more guns, are the way to address school violence, Sen. Al Franken said on Wednesday.

The Minnesota Democrat, in Duluth to announce legislation related to mental health, said he hasn't seen support for proposals to arm teachers or place armed guards in schools.

"In the discussion that I've had with Minnesota teachers and school officials, they don't think that's the solution," Franken said after a news conference at the Federal Building in Duluth. "There's agreement in the educational community in Minnesota … that we need more counselors, and we need more mental-health professionals in our schools."

The Dec. 14 slaying of 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has reawakened discussion about school safety. The National Rifle Association proposed placing armed guards in schools. In Minnesota, state Rep. Tony Cornish,

R-Vernon Center, said he'll introduce a bill to allow teachers to carry weapons.

Franken, who met with school officials in Eagan on Monday, said addressing mental-health issues early would be a better investment.

The earlier mental-health issues are addressed, the less likely they'll be to result in violent

behavior later on, Franken said. But Minnesota lags in providing counselors, he said. The state's high schools have one mental-health counselor for every 780 students, ranking 48th in the country in that category, he said.

The legislation Franken announced on Wednesday deals with mental-health issues when they lead to criminal behavior. Co-authored with U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Fla., the legislation would:

Authorize investment in veterans treatment courts, which serve arrested veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress, substance addiction and other mental-health conditions.

Support police academies including curricula on mental-health issues.

Extend the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act, first passed in 2004, for another five years, continuing federal support for mental-health courts and crisis intervention teams.

Franken said the bill is an attempt to favor treatment rather than incarceration for those who are mentally ill. He cited an estimate by Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek that up to 30 percent of inmates in county jails have mental illnesses.

"Of course, we want to put people who are violent in prison," Franken said. But treatment is more effective and less costly than prison for the mentally ill who are nonviolent, he said.