It’s not just a problem in Minnesota. All across the country, the criminal justice system is looking for ways to deal with the numbers of inmates who suffer from mental health problems. Authorities estimate that at least 16% of inmates in America’s jails and prisons are mentally ill, and about 40% of all residents with mental health issues have been incarcerated. Many of the homeless are mentally ill as well. Law enforcement officials and legislators in Minnesota are trying to find solutions.
In the 1970s, mentally ill persons were locked in institutions; today, they are often put in jail or out on the street. Jails are often ill-equipped to deal with the needs of these inmates, resulting in longer stays behind bars. Officials say jails have become like warehouses for the mentally ill, instead of more appropriate places like hospitals or community placement with support. Mentally ill inmates often stay in jail longer than their original sentences and leave in worse condition than when they entered the system.
In Minnesota, mental illness screening for all inmates has been mandatory since 2007. In the past ten years, the number of mental health evaluations ordered by the courts has risen sharply. These are known as Rule 20 exams. In 2005, there were 543 Rule 20 exams in the state; in 2015, there were almost 3,100. The numbers just in Hennepin County rose from 211 to 808 in the same period; Ramsey County went from two exams to 386. About one-third of the inmates in the Dakota County Jail have mental health issues.
So what is being done? Ramsey, Hennepin, and St. Louis counties have dedicated mental health courts, which take a hands-on approach to encouraging defendants to commit to treatment plans in order to avoid jail. In Dakota County, inmates are screened on arrival. Then their prescriptions are managed, psychologists are made available, and social workers are connected with them. A deputy is currently pursuing a graduate degree in forensic pathology.
In 2015, legislators tried to follow Florida’s example to set up receiving centers as alternatives to jail. Three of these centers were proposed to handle people with mental health crises. The plan would have avoided landing them in jail or the emergency room, neither good options. They would have had a temporary bed while the crisis was addressed by mental health professionals. Unfortunately, the measure failed, and no such bill has been proposed this year.
Opponents of the receiving center model see it as an unsustainable solution. Instead, they argue for expanding existing, proven programs like in-home mobile crisis teams, timely access to treatment, childhood services, and supported housing. Another proposal would require all police officers to receive mental health crisis training. Law enforcement officials say that won’t solve the problem, but it would be a step in the right direction.
The Governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton, recently named the state’s first task force on mental health. The task force is charged with exploring ways to overhaul the system.