Mentally ill inmates straining jail and DOC resources

September 24, 2014

When Franklin County Sheriff Kenneth Murphy chatted with a colleague about a frequent inmate, he learned how pervasive the problem of mental illness is in local jails.

Murphy was at a jail commanders meeting talking about a young man who had been arrested after he was found preaching naked on the streets of Laurel.

A sheriff turned around and told Murphy that same young man had been arrested in neighboring Decatur County for smacking another man over the head with a beer bottle. The young man claimed God had told him to do it. Then the young man attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge in Fayette County. He survived but broke his leg.

Now he is back in the Franklin County Jail.

“I think he’s been there more than I have in four years,” Murphy said, “and he has yet to receive any treatment other than what we provide, if you can call that treatment.”

Murphy and Howard County Sheriff Steve Rogers presented testimony about their experiences with mentally ill inmates to lawmakers during the Legislature’s Interim Study Committee on Corrections and Criminal Code meeting Sept. 15. The pair gave similar accounts of people in their jails who need psychiatric care but have few options for treatment in their communities.

Enhancing mental health treatment programs in the local jails is a key part of Indiana’s new criminal code that took effect July 1. House Enrolled Act 1006 seeks to alleviate overcrowding at the state prisons by keeping non-violent offenders whose crime is linked to psychiatric disability or substance abuse out of prison.

But the two sheriffs told the committee the county jails currently have little means for dealing with the chronically mental ill offenders.

Murphy pointed to the successful lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed against the Department of Correction for detaining prisoners with mental diseases in isolation. He predicted jails would be the subject of similar lawsuits for not providing mental health treatment.

To bolster programs at the local level, the state will have to appropriate funding. Rep. Greg Steuerwald, one of the architects of HEA 1006, stressed to his colleagues on the committee that the mental illness issue is a state responsibility, not something the communities should have to carry the weight of on their own.

The Avon Republican admonished the state “needs to step up and handle the issue.” He stressed if local programs are not funded and if prosecutors and judges are not given alternatives to locking up offenders, the new criminal code will not work.

Uncertainty over funding

Murphy said when Indiana began closing the state hospitals and privatizing psychiatric care, police and sheriffs knew the individuals who needed mental health care would not receive it. The people with money, insurance and family support can afford treatment through a private provider, he said, but the people without those resources are landing in jail.

Mark Levenhagen, executive director of mental health and special populations at the DOC, believes the focus on saving money may have obscured the state’s ability to see the potential result of closing publicly funded treatment facilities.

“Correctional officers are cheaper than psychiatrists,” he said, adding the state has saved money. “Psychiatrists and all the people that go into taking care of a mental hospital cost a lot more than the personnel it costs to run a prison.”

Levenhagen estimated about 20 to 25 percent of the population currently at the DOC has a mental health diagnosis. The state penal system has more resources for treatment and crisis management than the county jails, he said.

“A lot of these guys don’t need to go to prison but, unfortunately for them, there’s no other option,” Levenhagen said. “We can’t just let a person (with a mental illness) run loose like this in the community. There’s no community resources, there’s no community hospital for them to go to so (local police) don’t have a choice” but to arrest these individuals and take them to jail.

Money, in and of itself, is not the answer, Levenhagen said, but it is a big part of the solution.

mcmillin_jud-mug.jpg McMillin

The 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly is a budget year, and the interim study committee’s chair, Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, is confident funding will be appropriated for mental health treatment. Members of the committee have had extensive meetings with the legislators who craft the state budget, he said, and everybody seems to understand the need for resources.

“I would say there’s a pretty high degree of likelihood that we’ll come up with some type of funding,” McMillin said. “Now how much, I can’t tell you that right now.”

But committee member Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, thinks funding for mental health programs is “highly unlikely.”

He explained in past budget years, the Statehouse either has had no money and told everybody no, or had a lot of money and could do a lot of things. This time, the Legislature only has a little money and setting priorities will be difficult.

“I don’t see it happening during this session,” Taylor said. “But I will tell you this, there’s no doubt in my mind if we don’t stop the prison pipeline we have going in Indiana, the federal government’s going to force us to build another prison and that’s not good for anybody.”

greg taylor Taylor

Options for treatment

The interim study committee also heard testimony about potential solutions for addressing the mental health problem.

Monroe County is launching a one-year pilot program designed to help the mentally ill avoid jail. According to Linda Brady, chief probation officer for Monroe County, the community is using a grant of roughly $120,000 to fund additional beds and support programs in two local treatment facilities. Also, some probation officers have been shifted to handling only the individuals with serious mental health issues who have been charged with a felony.

“We want to make sure that people who do have mental health issues that shouldn’t be prosecuted in the first place, that they get into the services that can keep them from actually being prosecuted,” Brady, who is also a member of the committee, said.

Former Marion County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Peter Bisbecos presented the novel idea of appointing guardians for the mentally ill. He explained to the committee he envisions the guardianship to be defined by statute and have the limited purpose of ensuring the mentally ill maintain their treatment and medication regime.

As with the Monroe County pilot project, Bisbecos said his idea would help these people become stable and stop going back into the criminal justice system.

The committee will meet Oct. 6 to begin discussions on specific legislation to recommend to the General Assembly. McMillin said the goal is to offer the Legislature a bill that reflects what the committee believes is the best way forward on the mental health issue.•


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