Lawmakers weigh mental health treatment in jails and homes

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — The Department of Social Services is asking South Dakota lawmakers to allow criminal defendants who have been found mentally unfit for trial to be treated in jails or their homes.

The state agency said courts are increasingly finding that criminal defendants are incapable of understanding the proceedings or defending themselves due to mental illness. But many of those defendants have to wait months for treatment because the state’s only public psychiatric hospital — the 277-bed Human Services Center — is understaffed and two of its four units are closed.

A Senate committee approved a bill to allow the changes on Tuesday, and it will next be considered by the full Senate. The legislation comes amid a series of bills this year that look to overhaul the state’s mental health care services and how the criminal justice system handles people with mental illnesses.

Laura Ringling, the director of legal services at the department, said the proposal would free up beds at the hospital for people with the most severe mental illnesses. Defendants could also receive treatment in jail while they wait for a bed. Criminal defendants who were not found to be dangerous could be treated in their homes. Patients with severe mental illnesses would still be treated at the hospital.

Sen. Craig Kennedy, a Yankton Democrat, pointed out that part of the problem is that the psychiatric hospital has closed two of its four units because it does not have enough staff. Kennedy said the hospital’s wages were not competitive enough to attract the staff they need.

Ringling insisted their wages are competitive but that there’s a shortage of people qualified for mental health work.

The Department of Social Services would contract with mental health providers to administer the treatments in jails or in defendants’ homes.

The South Dakota Criminal Defense Lawyers Association agreed with the parts of the bill allowing treatment in homes but attempted to amend the bill to get rid of the treatments in jail. That attempt failed.

Kennedy said he was concerned that people would not get the mental health care they need in jail.

Staci Ackerman, the director of the South Dakota Sheriff’s Association, supported the proposal but said it should be a “stop gap” until the psychiatric hospital is able to hire more staff.