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Mentally ill deserve better from state

Randy Smith’s case is not unique.

Smith, who is mentally ill and in need of treatment, has been in trouble with the law for years. Jail records show he has been arrested 35 times since 2004, all non-violent crimes.

His latest incident — a felony charge of making abusive calls to 911 — has resulted in Smith sitting in the county jail for more than 600 days. More than 400 of those have come and gone since he was committed to the state hospital.

He needs treatment. A judge has ordered treatment. But he’s an inmate, not a patient, because the state hospital only has 15 beds for treatment and competency restoration for pre-trial circuit court defendants like Smith.

So he waits in a county jail cell with a handful of other inmates. He’s No. 14 on the list for a bed at the hospital; there are 84 people in the same situation statewide who are waiting.

“The limited bed space of the unit is a major factor in delays in receiving evaluations and restoration services,” said Adam Moore, a spokesperson with the Mississippi Department of Mental Health.

The number of forensic beds available hasn’t changed in 30 years, though the department has asked lawmakers for more money to expand the unit to 60 beds. The requests have gone nowhere, and instead the state mental health budget has been cut.

It’s hard for most of us to put ourselves in Smith’s shoes. Society, in general, struggles to understand mental illness. We too often dismiss those suffering as “less” or in some way beneath us. Even as the stigma of mental illness slowly fades, governments still refuse to fund mental health services at the level that is needed.

That’s why Smith, and others like him, are sitting in jail cells instead of hospital rooms.

In Smith’s case, no one seems to dispute that he belongs in a hospital.

“There’s a medical issue with him, not a criminal issue, but unfortunately when they don’t have a bed, they put them in jail, where they don’t need to be,” Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing said.

As a state, we must do better. Smith, and others like him, deserve better.