Home - Breaking News, Events, Things-To-Do, Dining, Nightlife


Lawmakers advance bills to restrict jailing people awaiting mental health treatment

Two bills imposing strict limits on when people can be jailed without criminal charges while they await mental health treatment are headed to the House and Senate floors. 

Both measures would allow counties to jail people during civil commitment proceedings only if alternatives such as local hospitals and crisis stabilization units are unavailable, and would restrict such jail detentions to no more than 24 hours. They would also require a mental health screening to take place before a person can be taken into custody– a proposal intended to reduce the number of commitments by connecting people with outpatient treatment options instead whenever possible. 

“We need to get the mentally ill out of our jails,” said Sen. Nicole Boyd, R-Oxford, as she introduced SB 2744 to the Judiciary A Committee on Tuesday afternoon. 

Her bill cleared the committee with no opposition. Last week, HB 1640, with similar language, passed out of the House Public Health Committee, also with no opposition. 

The legislation follows reporting by Mississippi Today and ProPublica that hundreds of Mississippians are jailed every year without criminal charges while they await mental health evaluations and treatment. Since 2006, at least 17 Mississippians have died while jailed during commitment proceedings. Earlier this year, 48-year-old James Tatsch died after being found unresponsive in the Alcorn County Jail, where he had been held with no criminal charges for 12 days.

House Public Health Chairman Rep. Sam Creekmore, who authored HB 1640, appeared to reference Tatsch’s death in describing part of his legislation that requires a hearing within five days of a person’s commitment examinations. Under the current law, the hearing can take place within 10 days of those examinations.

“There are cases in our state recently, had this been in place, some patients would still be alive,” Creekmore said. 

As the bills proceed, county officials are likely to raise concerns about costs, since jailing people is far cheaper than paying for their hospitalization. Neither SB 2744 nor HB 1640 includes new funding for treatment beds or facilities or money to help counties comply. 

While the state has expanded publicly funded crisis stabilization units in recent years, chancery clerks and law enforcement complain that they frequently turn patients away because they deem them “violent” or requiring a higher level of care. If no public bed is available, counties may be on the hook to pay for treatment at a private facility. 

During the Judiciary A meeting on Tuesday, Boyd referenced recent reporting by Mississippi Today that the nonprofit Disability Rights Mississippi plans to sue the state and some counties over the practice of jailing people on the basis of mental illness. 

“The state is facing litigation because we are continuing to put those that are mentally ill in our jails, and I think this will go a long way in making sure that we work through this,” she said.

On Tuesday, Disability Rights Mississippi Executive Director Polly Tribble reiterated her stance that any jail detention is too long for people who haven’t been accused of a crime. 

She asked who would monitor whether counties are meeting a 24-hour deadline to get someone out of jail, pointing out that the Department of Mental Health currently tracks such detentions and their length only after someone has had a commitment hearing and is waiting on a state hospital bed.

“There are just too many questions,” she said. “We are mandated to protect the rights of people with disabilities and we intend to do just that.”

The committee substitutes of HB 1640 as well as SB 2477 contain a measure that would continue to allow detentions in any jail that is certified as a holding facility by the Department of Mental Health. Jails with that certification must meet health and safety standards and be regularly inspected by the agency.

In public health hearings earlier this year, Department of Mental Health director Wendy Bailey told lawmakers that reforming the civil commitment process to restrict jail detentions is a top priority of the agency this session. 

“We’ve been supportive of changes to the commitment process, including restrictions on the use of jail as a holding facility and a pre-affidavit screening process that is in this legislation,” said Adam Moore, a spokesperson for the Department of Mental Health, on Tuesday. 

The Senate legislation also increases state oversight of the community mental health centers, the independent regional organizations responsible for providing safety net mental health care close to home. 

Specifically, Boyd’s bill would require the Department of Mental Health to create a rating scale for the centers and conduct a performance review audit at least every two years. After a six-month probation, the agency could replace a failing center’s director.

Dave Van, the executive director of Region 8, the community mental health center that serves Madison, Rankin and other counties in central Mississippi, said he thinks SB 2744 makes significant changes that could have unintended consequences. He said community mental health center directors and commissioners, along with county supervisors, weren’t sufficiently involved in the creation of the legislation.

“I just think it’s completely turning the mental health system upside down in a small amount of time without any research or input from all the players that provide the service, the boots on the ground,” he said. “Maybe it needs to be turned upside down. I’m just not sure.”

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Read original article by clicking here.

Local Dining Stream

Things To Do

Related articles