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Lawmakers: Minnesota jails in crisis on mental health

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Minnesota's justice system is overwhelmed by the needs and struggles of mentally ill people who are arrested but unable to get help, a new audit said Thursday.

Among people in a public program for a serious mental illness, at least 18 percent were arrested over the past two years.   Sixty-three percent of mentally incompetent inmates stayed in jail longer than necessary while waiting for a court order, according to the Minnesota legislative auditor.     

The report also found people increasingly forced to wait for help regardless of whether they've committed a crime. There are 1,000 mental health beds in the state, but there's a backlog.

  State lawmakers said the mental health system had reached a crisis point.   

  "We cannot fail here, and yet we are failing," state Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, told the Senate Health and Human Services Committee Thursday.

She said she was disturbed by what she called the lack of effort to treat people with mental illness, and she blamed the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

"We need you to come back to the Legislature with the big plan that says, 'Here is the continuum of services we need. Here is the capacity we have and here is what we need to get going on because we have a plan to meet these unmet needs,'" she said.

  The Office of the Legislative Auditor surveyed Minnesota jails, state psychiatric hospitals and places in the community where mental illness is treated. Human Services Deputy Commissioner Chuck Johnson called the report a good roadmap for the future and said the state will look into alternative facilities to place certain patients who no longer need hospital care.     

He acknowledged the state has had ongoing issues with staff turnover. The Human Services Department received a total of $46 million for mental health services last year. About $8 million went to hire staff at Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center and open up more beds. The department held a job fair recently that drew 300 people. Fifty positions were filled.

"People need to be ready to walk into that work environment, too, and not everybody is going to come and apply for a job at Anoka," Johnson said.

State Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Minneapolis, recounted a first-hand problem with the backlog. She said one of her extended family members was going through a mental health crisis Wednesday, leading Goodwin to call around for help.

"They didn't offer anything else except call 911," Goodwin said. "That's what we were trying to avoid. A few years ago, the same thing happened and she spent many, many hours in an emergency room waiting for help."

The challenges in the mental health system date back to the 1960s when lawmakers closed down state psychiatric institutions to integrate more people into the community.     

The only two remaining, highly-secured state-run psychiatric facilities in Minnesota are in Anoka and St. Peter. They serve patients who could be violent and need to be in a secure setting.  There are seven other, smaller, community behavioral health hospitals currently at capacity. 

  A state law passed two years ago gives priority to jail inmates at Anoka-Metro, but that limits the ability to serve other patients, said Joel Alter, the legislative auditor's office lead evaluator on the report, which found some people waiting up to two months.

  Counties should examine new ideas, like partnering with private hospitals to get people into treatment, Alter said. A new Ramsey County contract with Regions Hospital is an example where mentally ill inmates go to the front of the line, he added.

Editor's note: (March 4, 2016): An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the percentage of people with mental illness who were arrested over the past two years, and misspelled the first name of the lead evaluator of the auditor's report.  The latest version of this story also clarifies the makeup of the state's psychiatric facilities .