Editorial Roundup: Mississippi

Greenwood Commonwealth. May 30, 2024.

Editorial: First Step To Help The Mentally Ill

When it comes to limiting the practice of holding mentally ill people in jail who face no criminal charges, the Mississippi Legislature’s heart is in the right place.

House Bill 1640, which Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law earlier this month, is designed to limit such action. Previously, people going through a civil commitment process for mental-health treatment could be put in jail if county officials decided there was no other place to hold them.

The new law restricts this practice. Mississippi Today reports that people in the commitment process can only be put in jail without charges if they are “actively violent,” and they can only be held behind bars for a maximum of 48 hours. A judge must approve requests to hold such people in a jail.

Further, the new law “requires the mental health professional who recommends commitment to document why less-restrictive treatment is not an option. And before paperwork can be filed to initiate the commitment process, a staffer with a local community mental health center must assess the person’s condition.”

The bill Reeves signed won praise from county officials who handle civil commitments and from groups representing sheriffs and supervisors. The state Department of Mental Health also praised the bill, as a spokesman said it would put people first by connecting a person who needs mental health services with a mental health professional as a first step in the process.

Indeed, there is reason to hope that the new law means fewer mentally ill people will be put in jail, and that the average number of days such people spend behind bars without charges will be significantly reduced.

Too many people have been treated unfairly. Mississippi Today and ProPublica previously reported that over a recent four-year period, about two-thirds of people jailed during the commitment process were held for more than the 48 hours allowed under the new law.

Also, since 2006, at least 17 people have died, including nine suicides, after being held in a jail as part of a civil commitment process. One goal must be to eliminate that sad statistic.

But it’s important to remember that county officials weren’t putting mentally ill people in jail to be mean. They made the decision because they feared the people awaiting commitment were a danger, either to themselves or others, and they had no other place to house them..

The Lamar County chancery clerk told Mississippi Today that the effect of the new law may be limited until the state expands its mental health services: “Just because you’ve got a diversion program doesn’t mean you have anywhere to divert them to.”

That puts another demand on the Legislature to make sure the state has enough space outside of jails to hold mentally ill people during the commitment process. This may mean expanding existing facilities or building additional ones. Otherwise, it probably won’t be long before county officials make a conscious decision to violate the new law by keeping someone in jail without charges longer than 48 hours.

It might be hard to criticize that decision. What if a patient was threatening to kill himself or others? Is that someone you let out of jail?

Looking at the issue realistically, the new bill sets reasonable restrictions on the confinement of people awaiting commitment. But that is only the first step. The state needs an accurate count of mental-illness jail cases to assess the size of the problem, and then must determine if it needs more facilities — not jail cells — to hold them in a safe and compassionate way.