On behalf of the U.S. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association, I want to express my sympathies to the officers who were injured in the accident caused by William Leapley's actions back in January ("Man gets 12 years in prison," Oct. 9). Their lives have been changed forever.

The officers mentioned in the article in The Sun are, however, not the only victims in this occurrence. Mr. Leapley himself is a victim — of both the public mental health system and the judicial system. Given his multiple physical and psychological disabilities, it is difficult to understand how he could be considered competent to stand trial, much less how serving 12 years in prison would help him.

Involuntary commitment represents an abject failure of the public mental health system to provide the assistance that is an essential part of our nation's commitment to a social safety net. Given access to appropriate treatments and support systems, individuals recovering from mental illnesses are able to successfully live and work in the community. Yet these types of services, which could help Mr. Leapley and others in his circumstances, are the first to hit the cutting room floor when state and federal budgets are reduced.

By sentencing Mr. Leapley to prison, where he will have very little, if any, access to a support system that would help him, Judge Paul A. Hackner denied Mr. Leapley the opportunity to recover. Rehabilitation services are more effective in helping an individual recover from mental illness and they are far more cost-effective than a prison sentence. They provide job training, behavioral modification instruction, and housing opportunities. Rehabilitation would certainly provide Mr. Leapley with a greater chance of becoming a successful member of the community, but where will 12 years in prison leave him? Unemployed, homeless, and probably no better off than he is now.

Until society recognizes that mental illness is a medical illness and can be treated as effectively as diabetes, heart disease and other diseases that have come to the forefront of America's awareness, our society will continue to treat persons with mental illnesses in a barbaric rather than thoughtful justice.

Peter Ashenden,Linthicum

The writer is president of the U.S. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association's board of directors.