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Sheriffs demand legal action as mentally ill languish in Minnesota’s jails

March 2, 2018 GMT

Minnesota’s sheriffs are demanding legal action against the Department of Human Services (DHS), saying the agency is jeopardizing the health of dozens of mentally ill jail inmates by not admitting them to state-operated treatment facilities.

The Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association said this week it has documented at least 60 cases since 2015 in which DHS and its staff have failed to comply with a state law that requires inmates to be transferred to a state psychiatric facility within 48 hours after being committed as mentally ill by a state judge.

The violations should be considered crimes, and state officials who refuse to admit inmates should be prosecuted, the association said in a letter to the Minnesota attorney general’s office.

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“It is time for law enforcement and prosecution to take action to enforce the laws of the State of Minnesota that are regretfully being ignored to the peril of public safety, safety of sheriff staff and harmful to those in jail with severe mental illness,” the letter said.

The letter is likely to escalate a long-simmering feud between county sheriffs and DHS over how to accommodate a growing number of jail inmates with serious mental illnesses. As many as one-fourth of county jail inmates across Minnesota suffer from a diagnosed mental illness — hundreds of people on any given day — yet county jails are generally ill-equipped to offer care, provide medications or keep them safe.

The situation was exacerbated by a 2013 law that requires the state to find a psychiatric bed within 48 hours for anyone in a jail who is determined by a judge to be mentally ill. The law was meant to reduce the number of inmates sitting in jail without mental health treatment.

State officials have said repeatedly they can’t comply with the law because of a shortage of state psychiatric beds and an increase in commitments from jails. DHS officials did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.

In a case pending in court, a 26-year-old man with schizophrenia was held for 14 days in a county jail after he was committed by a judge for treatment at a state facility. The inmate, Isiah Malik White, suffered from paranoid delusions and prolonged bouts of auditory hallucinations, at times believing that the television was speaking to him, according to court records. During his time in custody, the man repeatedly threatened to assault and kill jail staff.

White was finally admitted to the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter on Thursday, but went two weeks without his medication or seeing a psychiatrist, said his attorney, Douglas McGuire.

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Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said that top DHS officials, including acting Commissioner Chuck Johnson, should be held in contempt of court for “failing to uphold their duty” under state law to admit the patient to a treatment facility within 48 hours. “These people are withering away and suffering in jail for no good reason,” Stanek said. “I don’t believe anyone should be allowed to disobey a court order or a state law.”

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres