From different communities in different parts of Indiana, two county sheriffs told lawmakers very similar stories about the mentally ill individuals who end up in their jails.
Howard County Sheriff Steve Rogers and Franklin County Sheriff Kenneth Murphy were frank in their assessment that the local jails are not equipped to handle the severely mentally ill people who are arrested again and again.
They pointed to the closure of state mental hospitals in the 1980s in favor of privatizing treatment as exasperating the situation. Many of the mentally ill individuals being arrested are not able to get help outside of jail because they have no money or insurance to pay for treatment at a private facility.
“We have become the mental health hospital for the United States,” Murphy said.
The General Assembly’s Interim Study Committee on Corrections and Criminal Code examined the issue of mental health issues in jails and prisons at its first meeting Sept. 15.
Rep. Jud McMillin, committee chair, explained to the crowded room that the initial meeting was meant to identify and get an overview of the issue. At a later meeting, he said, the committee would craft legislation and make recommendations to the Indiana General Assembly.
Mental health treatment is a key element in the new criminal code legislation that took effect July 1. The legislation is based on the premise that if individuals suffering from mental illness receive proper counseling and medication, they will not commit crimes and, therefore, will stay out of the penal system.
House Enrolled Act 1006, the new criminal code, seeks to put these people in treatment programs in their local communities.
Both Rogers and Murphy said their communities have few resources to help the mentally ill. They described individuals who exhibited extreme behavior, such as lapping up their own urine from the cell floor and hiding under their bunk bed for days. Some of these people, they explained, have gotten into situations after they were released that resulted in them being shot.
Murphy pointed to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana against the Indiana Department of Correction for holding mentally ill prisoners in isolation in violation of the Eight Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. He told the legislative committee at some point the county jails would face similar lawsuits for not providing treatment.
The Franklin County sheriff advocated establishing regional treatment centers funded by the local communities as well as the state to help those with mental health issues.
Peter Bisbecos, former deputy prosecuting attorney for Marion County, suggested another option.
Testifying at the meeting, Bisbecos presented his idea for appointing guardians for the mentally ill. These guardianships would be court ordered and defined by statute for a very limited purpose to ensure the mentally impaired individuals get to the services and the medications they need.
Bisbecos described his idea as a middle ground when having to decide between charging or not charging a mentally ill individual.
Several legislators said they liked the idea and thought it was a good way to address the issue of mental illness.
The committee is scheduled to examine juvenile justice issues at its next meeting Sept. 22 at 9 a.m.