Hennepin County's sheriff says he works at one of the biggest mental health facilities in the state. And a new study released Thursday provides some evidence for the claim that Minnesota puts more of its mentally ill residents in jails than anywhere else.
On one day this summer the sheriff's office had medical staff assess nearly all of the 600-plus inmates in the jail in Minneapolis to see how many need – or would benefit from – mental health services.
They called it a "One-day Snapshot Study." And the Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) staff who conducted it said 52 percent of the inmates they assessed showed indicators of mental illness, the sheriff's office reports.
Sheriff Rich Stanek says until now the best estimate was that 1/4 to 1/3 of the county's inmates needed mental health help, but that was based on what the inmates themselves told their jailers.
“Now that we have better information about the extent of mental illness among jail inmates, we can begin working on better ways to provide the services they need and deserve,” Stanek says.
Starting next month, the booking process for new jail inmates will include a mental health screening by a registered nurse from HCMC. Medical staff will also have input on decisions about the housing and classification of inmates. And those who are taking medications will be given a 24 hour supply when they're released.
But ultimately, county officials said Thursday, a jail is not the place to get mental health help. At the release of the study a county commissioner, a psychiatrist from HCMC, and the chief public defender all called for more alternatives.
The Star Tribune says officials described a cycle in which people with psychiatric problems are brought to jail for low-level crimes like disturbing the peace, do not get mental health care while behind bars, leave jail in a weaker mental health state than when they arrived, and go on to commit more serious crimes.
Audit called it a statewide issue
A report earlier this year from Minnesota's legislative auditor looked at mental health services in jails across the state and found a number of problems.
One of the biggest is that once someone with a mental illness is in custody, there aren't many places for a law enforcement officer to take them where they can get the services they need, the auditor wrote in the March report (read a summary here).
Mary Moriarty, Hennepin County's chief public defender, said of the study released Thursday: "I hope that this additional information will push the criminal justice system to find better solutions for these clients.”