By Esme Murphy

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Law enforcement in the east metro say mental illness is a growing crisis in their jails.

A Department of Justice study classified 55 percent of the country’s state prison population as mentally ill, and 73 percent of all female inmates as such.

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The sheriffs in Dakota, Ramsey and Washington Counties say as many as a third of the people in their jails have a mental illness with another third are likely undiagnosed.

“It is important for us to have empathy for people who have mental illness,” Ramsey County Sheriff Jack G. Serier said.

It may sound like a simple statement, but the sheriff’s call for empathy is an important breakthrough for mental health professionals.

“Having some empathy talking to them about what their needs are is really a step forward,” Minnesota’s executive director of the National Alliance for Mental Illness Sue Abderholden said.

Law enforcement officials in the east metro gathered to share ideas on the problem Tuesday. For six months, Dakota County has been providing mental health assessments when someone enters their jail, and then again a few days later while they’re still in custody.

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The result, Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie says, is a better analysis.

“Unfortunately law enforcement has no other place to bring these folks except to jail,” Leslie said. “There is no drop-in facility — an intermediate place between emergency rooms and jail.”

Dakota County’s next step may be to follow up after a person is released from jail.

“We haven’t done it yet, but we are looking at it as a potential way to help us in this area,” Leslie said.

Mental health professionals say the real breakthrough would be providing better care before individuals have their first contact with the criminal justice system.

“[If we] build our mental health system, we will see a decrease in our criminal justice system,” Abderholden said.

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A new state law that went into effect July 1 is also expected to help — it requires Minnesota’s 11,000 peace officers to undergo training on mental health response and conflict de-escalation. Officers must complete the 16 hours of training every three years.

Esme Murphy