North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory has commendably concentrated on mental health care and substance abuse with a task force focused on issues that have confused and challenged lawmakers for many years. The task force has ideas that seem sound – but it will have to persuade the General Assembly to act.
Consider: There is a priority for finding affordable housing for the mentally ill. For one, it’s clear that people who are suffering are, as McCrory has said, living in all sorts of places in many circumstances. Some are in prisons; some are in hospitals; some are homeless; some are living with their families in situations that strain everyone involved. The issue also is important because the U.S. Department of Justice had threatened to sue the state because there is a shortage of such housing.
Overall, the task force wants to present to the General Assembly a plan to coordinate mental health policies, particularly those in the health care and justice systems. This makes sense. Rick Brajer, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, rightly noted that oversight of mental health care and substance abuse is scattered: “It’s hard to describe it as a system. Because it’s not a system.”
Creating a system might have a positive impact, for example, on something like the effort not to charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in most criminal cases. Juveniles charged as adults often can’t get the help they’d be eligible for if they were classified as juveniles. There needs to be more common sense, and compassion, applied in those cases. North Carolina and New York are the only two states that still prosecute all youth as adults when they turn 16 years of age. There also need to be resources for providing more substance abuse treatment for those in jail, who now often return to destructive habits when they leave the prison system – until they return to it.
The governor has endorsed the task force’s recommendations and appears ready to push the General Assembly to move on some of its ideas. It will take some doing. The mentally ill have suffered in North Carolina from a lack of coherent policy going back to a 2001 overhaul of mental health care that was unsuccessful. McCrory can distinguish himself if he wins approval for some changes from lawmakers, at long last.