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State audit slams Minnesota over lack of mental health care for inmates

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When police officers in Minnesota come across someone who needs mental health help, what should they do?

A new report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) says in too many cases there is no good answer to that question.

County jails do not have good psychiatric services and mental health facilities usually have no beds available, a summary of the report released Thursday says.

Minnesota is already breaking some of its own laws, the audit found – especially when it comes to defendants found mentally incompetent to stand trial. According to the report, many of those people languish in jail cells waiting for a court decision on what should be done. Some of them never do get the treatment they need, the OLA says.

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The audit found jails often fail to check on the mental well-being of inmates, raising the risk of suicide. The Star Tribune notes that since 2000 more than 50 inmates in Minnesota have killed themselves and another 770 have tried to.

The OLA's report (all 123 pages are available here) focuses on mental health services in county jails, but the audit found that issue is linked to shortcomings in Minnesota's overall mental health care system.

Some of the recommendations include streamlining the process of getting treatment for those who are incompetent to stand trial; conducting mental health assessments of inmates who spend two weeks or more in jail; and allowing jails with proper staff and training to administer medications, even involuntarily.

But the top recommendation is that the Legislature, the Department of Human Services, and Minnesota's counties work together to develop and fund a comprehensive set of mental health services.

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Gov. Mark Dayton told the Pioneer Press: "I think we have a crisis in our whole mental health system, starting with those who are in jails."

Dayton told KSTP this week some of the practices the station revealed in an investigation of the state psychiatric hospital in Anoka are "totally unacceptable." KSTP reported last month that violent patients, including sex offenders, were being placed alongside vulnerable patients.

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At a Senate Health and Human Services Committee meeting Thursday lawmakers agreed the state's mental health system is at a crisis point, MPR News reports.

Republican Julianne Ortman blamed the Department of Human Services for a lack of effort to treat people with mental illness, MPR says.

Thursday's audit also found that Minnesota's recently passed "48 hour law," which gives inmates priority for placement in the state's two psychiatric hospitals (including one in St. Peter) is not working as intended because it's crowding other patients out of hospital beds.

Dayton told KSTP he will ask lawmakers to approve money to build community housing for patients who no longer need to be in locked hospitals, as well as funding for additional staff and training.

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