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Minn. Officials Highlight Mental Illness In Jails

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota’s local jails are badly overburdened by mentally ill inmates who don’t have access to the kind of treatment they need, law enforcement officials said Tuesday.

The state Senate’s Judiciary Committee held a hearing Tuesday on mental health issues facing both the state Corrections Department and County Jails. State Sen. Barb Goodwin, who chaired the hearing, said Minnesota, many other U.S. states and the federal government have “dropped the ball” in providing consistent mental health care for the indigent.

“We’re hoping to figure out what kind of services we need to turn this around,” said Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights. “Right now I’m hearing from jails and prisons that 30 to 50 percent of inmates have a mental illness. And 30 to 40 years ago it was 5 percent. So the problem is increasing.”

Indeed, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek estimated that 25 to 30 percent of inmates in Hennepin County — the state’s largest county jail system — are suffering from some form of mental illness at any given time. It’s a risk both to the inmates and the employees who interact with them, he said.

“Often, jail staff must operate as front line mental health workers, and it’s a challenge to them day in day out,” Stanek said. “The jail is not the best place for someone with a mental illness. They should be receiving psychiatric care in a state facility.”

Two years ago, the Legislature passed a law that any jail inmate committed to a psychiatric facility must be transferred within 48 hours of the commitment ruling. But overburdened courts often aren’t able to actually hold commitment hearings on a timely basis, which is leaving mentally ill inmates stuck in jails anyway, officials said.

Sue Abderholden, the executive director of Minnesota’s chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said the problem largely stems from dwindling state resources for treatment programs. Such programs have often been among the first cut in lean budget times because the people being treated are on society’s margins and lack political influence, Abderholden said.

Abderholden ticked off a long list of programs and policy changes that she said would reduce the problem: mental health training for law enforcement and correctional officers, mental health courts, allowing inmates to continue psychotropic medication in jails, better state oversight of mental health care in jails, more housing options and other transition programs for mentally ill people coming out of jails are among a long list of what she said would be meaningful changes.

Goodwin said it’s a problem that’s likely to need a number of years to address properly. She said she would introduce a bill in the 2014 session that would at least start to tackle the issue.

“I’m bound and determined to do something,” Goodwin said.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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