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Mental health, drug addiction fuel Pennsylvania’s crime problems

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(The Center Square) — As Pennsylvania struggles to restrain some serious crimes, two significant factors drive crime, both serious and petty: drug addiction and mental health issues.

A collection of state law enforcement officials, from police to district attorneys, testified this at a Senate Republican Policy Committee hearing on criminal justice and crime trends in Pennsylvania on Wednesday.

The problems aren’t so simple. Funding, recruitment for police and prosecutors, inter-agency cooperation, and re-entry services were all mentioned.

“One of the main issues we see that has been a tremendous challenge for us in York has been the issue of mental health,” York County District Attorney Dave Sunday said.

The mental health connection is not a new one. During appropriations hearings in April, Department of Corrections officials noted that almost 40% of men and almost 70% of women in state prisons have a mental illness.

“The largest mental health provider in our community has turned out to be our prisons,” Sunday said. “Mental health, combined with substance abuse, and oftentimes dual-diagnoses, are really the drivers of a lot of the crime that we see in our community.”

In some localities, drug-connected crime dominates problems such as DUI cases, and local leaders lack resources to steer people into diversion or treatment programs.

Getting them into treatment could help them get off drugs and stabilize their lives, but also make police and prosecutors more effective in preserving public safety.

“By investing in treatment alternatives for substance abusers, the criminal justice system can better focus on arresting the traffickers and violent offenders,” said Jodie Lobel, chief of staff for the office of the Attorney General.

Youth crime was also mentioned by multiple officials.

“We are seeing a growing, growing problem with juveniles and young adults with guns,” Berks County District Attorney John Adams said. “Committing crime with guns, possession of guns.”

Getting a hold of a gun is a status symbol as much as a weapon.

“Not only are juveniles showing that they have access to firearms and advanced weaponry … they’re also showing them on social media,” Lobel said.

She offered a pessimistic view for the future, however.

“As a statewide agency, we are seeing trends in crime and violence shifting in the wrong direction,” Lobel said.

Legislators were open to adapting criminal laws to give officials more power to deal with crime.

“I want to work with you to get the proper statutes on the books so you can both, those enforcing them and those prosecuting them, have the tools you need to get some of these people off the street or deter them,” said Sen. Frank Farry, R-Langhorne.

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