Ledbetter advocates for mental health funding, tougher gang sentencing to reduce gun violence

Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, said the answer to the epidemic of gun violence may lie in better mental health care treatment in communities and tougher sentencing for incidents of gang violence.

Ledbetter made the comments Monday morning during a Zoom meeting set up by the Fort Payne Chamber of Commerce.

On April 15, four young people died and another 32 were injured when gunfire erupted at a Sweet 16 birthday party in Dadeville. Six suspects have been arrested, including several minors being charged as adults. Such mass shootings have become a national epidemic with 135 shootings since the start of the year, killing 196 people and wounding 470, according to the website gunviolencearchive.org.

“There’s been a lot of conversation about that, and rightfully so,” Ledbetter said. “We have done a lot to try and correct some of the issues such as putting more money into mental health than at any time in the state’s history. We are putting more money into school safety to secure our schools. I think that when bad situations happen, like in Dadeville -- which has been politicized more than I would like, to be honest -- I don’t think there’s any gun law that would have stopped that.

“From that standpoint, we’ll see bills that help to secure our communities as well as the schools and give law enforcement the tools they need to protect the citizens. We’ve increased the number of state troopers and things like that. It’s important to do. But that conversation will continue and trying to find out what is the best remedy to give our police and mental health people enough tools.”

He said Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has encouraged the adoption of a gang violence bill that would enhance prison sentences for crimes committed to support or promote a criminal gang, and to require minimum prison terms for carrying or using a gun during a gang-related crime. The calls for tougher criminal sentences come as Alabama contends with allegations that its prisons hold men in conditions that violate the Constitution and with the rising costs of the correctional system, including the cost of new prisons.

During the Zoom call, Ledbetter told Fort Payne Superintendent Brian Jett he can foresee additional funding for mental health in schools.

“We went from zero coordinators funded by the state to 142 in the state’s schools,” Ledbetter said, thanking Jett for Fort Payne leading the way on the issue. “We haven’t finalized the Education Trust Fund budget yet, so there’s a lot of moving parts right now. I was invited to a national mental health convention last week. It was quite interesting to be on that panel with professors from Georgetown.”

Mental illnesses are disorders, ranging from mild to severe, that affect a person’s thinking, mood and/or behavior. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one-in-five adults live with a mental illness.

Jett said Fort Payne adds $120,000 in local dollars to the $40,000 provided by the state for mental health coordinator and a social worker. They seek to add an additional behavioral specialist to the staff, which he described as being like an interventionist to deal with students with behavioral issues in K-6.

Sheila Hurley of CED Mental Health was on the call and thanked Ledbetter for everything he has done to increase funds for mental health treatment in DeKalb County. She said she hopes to see more crisis intervention training for first responders, including school resource officers.

Ledbetter said that an additional $5 million will go to supplement the pay of mental health coordinators caught in the wake of inflation and reported that calls to the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline had increased by 18,000 to 32,000 calls just from inside the state of Alabama. In 2020, Congress designated the new 988 dialing code to be operated through the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or start an online chat at 988lifeline.org.

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