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‘Depriving people of their liberty.’ Lawmakers question jail without criminal charges

Restricting the use of jail to detain people who haven’t been charged with a crime – a practice that is extremely rare in the vast majority of the country but common in Mississippi – is a top priority of the Department of Mental Health this session, director Wendy Bailey told lawmakers at a Senate Public Health Committee meeting on Wednesday. 

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said that having a mental illness is not a crime, and he suggested jailing people while they wait for treatment is against the law (though Mississippi commitment statutes permits it when there is “no reasonable alternative”).

“Do the counties not understand that’s what this is and arguably could be opening the state up to litigation even further?” he asked Bailey, adding that the practice is “depriving people of their liberty.”

Bailey said she agreed.

“If you are sick and need a court commitment, that is not a reason to place an individual in jail,” she said.

Yet it happens hundreds of times a year at least. Mississippi Today and ProPublica found last year that people may spend days or weeks locked in a cell with minimal medical care as they wait for evaluations, a hearing, and then treatment through the civil commitment process. 


So far, Rep. Kevin Felsher, R-Biloxi, has introduced a bill that would restrict jail detentions to situations when a person is waiting for transportation to a medical facility and permit such detentions for up to 72 hours only. House Public Health Chairman Sam Creekmore, R-New Albany, is planning to introduce a bill that would require a person to receive a pre-evaluation screening by a mental health professional before they can be detained through the commitment process. 

Bailey has said she supports those efforts, and she formally made that request to lawmakers at the Senate Public Health Committee hearing on Wednesday.

 “We want an individual to see a mental health professional before a writ is issued,” she said. 

Local officials including chancery clerks and a county supervisor also spoke to lawmakers, and others, such as Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker, sat in the audience. 

Forrest County Chancery Clerk Lance Reid told the committee he had previously required each person who wanted to initiate commitment to contact the local community mental health center, Pine Belt, so that a mental health professional could determine whether commitment was necessary before the process began. But the agency instructed him to stop because that isn’t allowed under current law. 

“I would love for DMH to take another look at that situation,” he said, adding that the process kept some people out of the commitment process altogether. 

Bailey described data showing that people are spending less time waiting in jail for a state hospital bed, with a current average of just under three days. But that figure only includes the amount of time people spend waiting after they have a hearing, which could happen 10 days or longer after they are first detained in jail. 

The state has no data on how often people are jailed before a commitment hearing, nor how long they wait in jail before a hearing. Bailey told lawmakers the agency is still working on collecting information about people jailed before a hearing, which was a requirement of a law passed last year. 

Lawmakers also raised questions about what Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, called “spiteful situations” in which someone files commitment paperwork against someone else not because of a genuine mental health issue but rather to hurt them by causing their arrest and detention in jail or a medical facility, sometimes during a divorce or custody dispute. 

“It’s not something you can just go take someone off the streets and put them in jail,” said Lamar County Chancery Clerk Jamie Aultman. “It’s a step by step process.”

But the safeguards designed to keep people who don’t need treatment out of the process are not always effective. In 2019, a DeSoto County woman was committed and forced to spend 18 days in a behavioral health facility after her husband filed an affidavit against her – even though the doctors who examined her before her hearing found “no evidence of mania or psychosis. She is no danger to herself or others. She is not in need of mental treatment.” 

Aultman also described his work to establish a crisis stabilization unit to serve Lamar and Forrest Counties. The project has secured state and federal funding as well as $1 million from each of the counties and $750,000 from the city of Hattiesburg. Currently, he said, Lamar County residents go to jail if a crisis bed is not available or won’t admit the person. 

The Lamar County Sheriff’s Department shared data with Mississippi Today last year showing that from 2019 through 2022, more than 250 people were jailed during the commitment process, the vast majority with no criminal charges. 


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