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Senate passes measure restricting jailing of people with mental illness

On Tuesday morning, Sen. Nicole Boyd, R-Oxford, got a phone call from a Mississippi community mental health center staffer who wanted to share a story.

A few days earlier, a man had filed an affidavit to initiate commitment proceedings against his wife. Having recently lost three family members and close friends, she wouldn’t get out of bed. Her husband didn’t know what to do, so he decided to try to have her committed. Following orders, a sheriff’s deputy took her into custody.

“She probably right now, unless she got out this morning, is sitting in a jail, and she probably just has a bad case of depression,” Boyd said on the Senate floor Tuesday evening as she introduced legislation that would restrict the use of jail to detain people who are not charged with any crime while they await involuntary commitment proceedings.

The bill, SB 2744, passed with little opposition. The limits on jail that it proposes are similar to language in a House bill that also passed on Tuesday.

The measures would allow a person to be jailed only if they are violent, all alternatives have been exhausted, and a judge has ordered the jail detention. The person could be jailed no longer than 24 hours.

The bills also seek to require a mental health screening before a person is taken into custody for commitment proceedings. The aim is to avoid situations in which a person is picked up and jailed for days before evaluators determine they’re not mentally ill. The measure also seeks to divert people from commitment where possible by connecting them with outpatient treatment options.

“We’re going to make sure that the rights of those that are being committed are upheld,” Boyd said.

Boyd also said the legislation would reduce the “legal burden” on counties. She referenced statements by the leadership of Disability Rights Mississippi, the nonprofit protection and advocacy organization for people with disabilities, that they plan to sue the state and some counties over the practice of jailing people charged with no crime.

But Polly Tribble, executive director of Disability Rights Mississippi, said earlier this month that the existing legislation doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t take jail off the table entirely.

Boyd’s legislation also creates additional state oversight of the community mental health centers. The centers are regional organizations that are responsible for providing mental health services close to home and making them accessible regardless of a person’s ability to pay.

It would create a performance audit system in which the Department of Mental Health would assign each center a rating. Struggling centers could be placed on probation, after which their leadership could be replaced if they don’t improve.

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