Mental health funding too low

Congratulations to officials in Lincoln County Circuit Court and at the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield, who solved an embarrassing problem that the Legislature has been unwilling to address.

The district attorney’s office recently made a deal with the public defender for a Lincoln County man who had been in jail for 667 days. This got him off a waiting list for criminal mental health treatment and into Whitfield right away.

The solution was simple: Drop the charge of felony harassing phone calls in exchange for the defendant agreeing to enter treatment.

The Brookhaven Daily Leader newspaper also deserves praise. The paper was the first to report that the defendant had been in the county jail for nearly two years — since Christmas Day 2016.

The story prompted a call from the director of the state hospital to the public defender. Both agreed the defendant needed treatment, but he was stuck on the waiting list for competency to stand trial because of the felony charge.

Because the 22 months he’d already been in jail would cover any prison sentence in the case, District Attorney Dee Bates’ office agreed to drop charges on October 22. The sheriff’s department filed an affidavit the same day in chancery court to commit the defendant for treatment.

The man got in trouble with the law for repeatedly calling 911, where he was seeking an ambulance to give him a ride to Brookhaven from his rural camper. Yes, it was a crime, but the key issue clearly is mental health treatment.

Dropping the felony charge was an appropriate decision — one that Bates said prevented the defendant from being held another six or eight months in jail. But it raises questions:

• How many beds does the state have available to assess whether felony suspects are competent to stand trial? Unfortunately it has only 15, which is abysmally low given Mississippi’s problems with mental illness and crime — that too often intersect.

• If the Lincoln County defendant was waiting for nearly two years, how many other accused felons are on the same waiting list? How many of them have been held in a county jail for a month, two months, a year?

• What factors go into deciding who gets one of the 15 beds for assessing competency to stand trial? Most likely, the severity of the crime plays the key role. That makes more sense than the length of time held in jail, although in extreme cases you see what can happen.

• Does the state need to add beds for treatment of felons? If Lincoln County’s experience is any indication, it certainly appears so. If that is true, how much would it cost?

The Republican lawmakers who control the Legislature have done a good job controlling state spending. Sometimes they do too good of a job, and mental health care is one such area. It is immoral to keep a mentally ill person in a county jail for nearly two years, and the state has an obligation to prevent this. If it requires more money, then so be it.

 

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