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Deal gets Smith bed at hospital; spent 2 years in jail waiting for treatment

A Lincoln County man who sat in jail for more than two years awaiting mental health treatment is finally in the state hospital following a deal made by prosecutors, hospital officials and his attorney.

Lincoln County Public Defender Lesa Baker said 43-year-old Randy Hugh Smith was released from the Lincoln County Jail Tuesday and committed to the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield on a civil commitment after hospital administrators and local court officials struck a deal to drop his charges and remove him from a long waiting list for criminal mental health treatment. Smith had been incarcerated since Christmas Day 2016, a stay of 667 days behind bars.

“This is the best result — the state hospital is where he needed to be,” Baker said. “Mental health treatment is what he needed, and what we were seeking for him.”

Smith spent 22 months in jail waiting for an opening in the state hospital’s 15-bed forensic unit, where those facing criminal charges are treated and evaluated to determine their competency to stand trial. As of September, he was No. 14 on the statewide waiting list of 84 patients, trapped in a slow-moving process as the Mississippi Department of Mental Health works to expand a forensic unit that has remained the same size since the 1980s.

Smith was charged with felony harassing calls to 911 for attempting to use ambulances for rides into Brookhaven from his camper in western Lincoln County. He had been convicted of the same crime three times previously, and his most-recent charges made him ineligible for the state hospital’s larger civil commitment units.

“(State hospital director James Chastain) called me and said, ‘Look, this seems to be much more of a need for treatment and not a need for competency restoration.’ I said, ‘Yes, I agree. I think the state agrees, too,’” Baker said. “He’s basically already served his sentence, even if he’s found guilty. So we took the chancery court route. I explained to Randy that this would get him treatment quicker, and he did not contest it.”

Baker took Chastain’s offer to Lincoln County District Attorney Dee Bates, who agreed to drop Smith’s charges. Judge David Strong signed the order of nolle prosequi on Monday, and Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing filed an affidavit in Lincoln County Chancery Court to have Smith committed that same day. State hospital officials arrived at the jail to pick up Smith on Tuesday.

“It was the best thing for Randy, and the best thing for Lincoln County,” Bates said. “We’re not going to find guilt or innocence on Randy. If we continued on the path we were on, it could have been six or eight more months of him sitting in the Lincoln County Jail, and that isn’t good for anybody.”

Rushing said he’s never seen the state hospital agree to a deal like Smith’s.

“This was the first time they’ve worked out a treatment plan this way,” he said. “I hope it works out and he gets the treatment he needs on a long-term basis. Jail is not the answer for mental health patients, or alcohol and drug commitments.”

Baker said she had never seen such an offer before, either, and she believes it came about because of the publicity surrounding Smith’s case. He was the subject of Sept. 8 story in The Daily Leader examining his plight and the relationship between criminal justice and mental health in Mississippi, and local court and law officials, as well as local legislators, have made numerous calls seeking help for Smith.

“The article, the phone calls — it finally got someone’s attention,” Baker said. “I’m interested to see how this treatment will be continued, and where he goes next. Hopefully, the state will provide some means to help keep him stable with continued treatment, even if it’s just outpatient treatment or medication.”

“If felony charges are dropped, a person in need of mental health treatment may be admitted to MSH through a civil commitment handled by the local chancery court, which will result in an admission to the hospital’s Acute Psychiatric Services,” he said. “However, as mentioned, civil commitment is not an option if a person has felony charges pending.”