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House approves limits to jailing people with mental illness charged with no crime

The House approved legislation strictly limiting when Mississippians can be jailed solely on the basis of mental illness, when they have not been charged with any crime– something that currently happens hundreds of times a year.

Similar language in the Senate is awaiting a floor vote.

Currently, state law allows people to be jailed during involuntary commitment proceedings if there is “no reasonable alternative.” Hundreds of times a year, Mississippians are jailed with no criminal charges, solely because they may need treatment for mental illness. No other state jails so many people charged with no crime for such lengths of time. 

Since 2006, at least 17 people have died after being jailed during the commitment process, including a man who died after being jailed without charges in Alcorn County for 12 days in January. No state agency tracks this information, so Mississippi Today and ProPublica assembled a tally by reviewing lawsuits, Mississippi Bureau of Investigation reports, and news clips.

The House legislation, HB 1640, authored by Public Health Chairman Rep. Sam Creekmore, R-New Albany, would require a judge to determine that a person is “violent” and issue a specific order to hold them in jail. The detention would be capped at 24 hours, and the local community mental health center would be required to provide treatment while the person was jailed. A person would get a hearing within three to five days of their evaluations, compared to seven to 10 days in current law. 

HB 1640 would also require a screening by a mental health professional before a person could be taken into custody, a provision intended to prevent situations where people are taken to jail to await evaluations that determine they don’t actually need treatment.

On the House floor on Tuesday, some lawmakers raised questions about who will pay for the treatment that will be required if counties can’t detain people in jail. The bill contains no additional funding.

“It’s cheaper to transport someone than to keep them in jail,” Creekmore said, arguing that deputies can drive people to available crisis unit beds around the state instead of holding them in jail. 

The Department of Mental Health operates a bed registry that allows county officials to see where there are open beds around the state, but the facilities can also reject patients if they determine they are violent or have medical needs the crisis unit can’t care for. State data shows the number of those rejections has been falling.

As initially introduced, the legislation restricting jail detentions applied to all jails in the state. The committee substitute added language allowing people to be detained in jails that have been certified as a holding facility by the Department of Mental Health. To get the certification, jails and other facilities must meet health and safety standards, including suicide prevention protocols, and provide mental health treatment and medications.

Adam Moore, spokesman for the Department of Mental Health, said Tuesday afternoon that there are currently only two certified holding facilities in the state. One is the Chickasaw County Detention Center and the other is Magnolia Regional Health Center in Alcorn County.

Joy Hogge, executive director of the nonprofit organization Families As Allies, was at the Capitol Tuesday for Mental Health and Wellness Day with a handout urging lawmakers to make some changes to HB 1640 and the related Senate bill, SB 2744. 

Hogge said she is concerned that requiring a screening before a person can be taken into custody for commitment proceedings could put a burden on families by forcing them to try to get a relative to agree to go to a provider’s office for an evaluation in the midst of a crisis.

“What we see is families that are just desperate to get help for their loved one, and find it very difficult to do that,” she said. 

The screening requirement includes an exception: If a person being considered for commitment proceedings is “actively violent or refuses to participate in the pre-affidavit screening,” the community mental health center can recommend that the process go forward and sheriff’s deputies can take a person into custody.

Hogge said there are some patients, such as those with complex medical needs or physically aggressive behavior, who won’t be able to get the treatment they need at the crisis stabilization units; the state hospitals may be the only facilities that can treat them. 

But the state hospitals admit patients only with a court-order through the commitment process, and only during designated hours. With more flexible admissions policies, the state hospitals could admit those patients faster and they could spend less time in jail.

“Why aren’t we looking more at that part?” Hogge said.

Moore, the DMH spokesman, said the agency is considering adding admission hours at the state hospitals in the next few months.

“Our state hospitals are working closely with the CSUs in situations where someone has a commitment order and may be physically aggressive and needs to be admitted quickly to the state hospital,” he said.

The Families As Allies handout also calls on lawmakers to “eliminate all references to holding people in jail,” instead of permitting it in certain circumstances. 

Leaders of another nonprofit organization, Disability Rights Mississippi, have also said the legislation doesn’t go far enough in restricting jail detentions for people who have committed no crime. They are planning a lawsuit against the state and some counties arguing the practice is unconstitutional. 

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