Mental health courts not out of picture in legislature

Published 9:24 pm Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Rep. Becky Currie’s legislation that would create mental health courts across the state died in committee Tuesday, but she remains hopeful the courts might still be created as part of another bill.

Currie’s bill that would establish mental health courts did not make it out of the Senate Judiciary A Committee. Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, is vice-chair of that committee.

“I hate that the bill died because I wanted to make sure that it passed and we begin to care for our mentally ill patients and not continue to let them fall through the cracks,” she said.

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Currie envisioned a court system for the mentally ill similar to drug court. The court system could ensure treatment and keep those suffering from mental illness out of jail.

“Every legislator believes it will be a good thing for the state and mentally ill patients,” she said.

House Bill 1352, the Criminal Justice Reform Act, contains a provision for mental health courts, and it passed out of committee Tuesday.

The bill states that a Intervention Courts Advisory Committee will be established to develop and update plans on intervention courts, including mental health courts and veterans courts.

That bill, however, has some obstacles to overcome. Transportation officials said Tuesday that Mississippi could lose millions of federal dollars because the bill affects the suspension of driver’s licenses. Senators said they will try to address those concerns and avoid the problem. HB 1352 seeks to ease some penalties for people accused or convicted of nonviolent crimes, and to create a smoother process for wiping some crimes from a person’s record.

The bill would prohibit the state from revoking a driver’s license simply because a person fails to pay fines. The state also would no longer suspend a driver’s license for a drug charge that is not related to operating a vehicle.

Mississippi Department of Transportation director Melinda McGrath and department attorney Judy Martin appeared Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary A Committee. Martin said the federal government has a mandatory six-month driver’s license suspension for drug offenses. She said she thinks the bill could put the state out of compliance, risking the loss of $36.5 million a year in federal transportation money.

“The House and Senate will probably work it out in conference,” Currie said about the Criminal Justice Reform Act. “Hopefully if the criminal justice bill gets worked out, the mental health courts portion will survive.”

“The last eight years we have done nothing to help the mentally ill,” she said previously. “We need this. The Senate continues to kill it (the bill) and do nothing to help them.”

Several bills authored by local legislators survived Tuesday’s committee deadline, including one that would help Lincoln County supervisors fix a $1.6 million mistake.

House Bill 1249, which lists Currie as a co-author, would amend state law to allow county governments to pay the total or any part of the cost of insurance coverage for employee dependents. It would allow them do so retroactively for any existing group coverage plan previously adopted.

Supervisors are in an ongoing dispute with State Auditor Shad White, who has demanded they personally reimburse Lincoln County around $1.6 million for improper insurance benefits payments made on behalf of county employees.

If the bill becomes law, supervisors would not be liable for the improper insurance premium payments.

Other bills still alive:

• Currie’s HB 1108 would designate a portion of Hwy. 51 in Lincoln County as “Deputy Donald William Durr Memorial Highway.” Durr was killed in the line of duty in 2017.

• Sen. Sally Doty’s bill that would protect certain information held by rape crisis and domestic violence programs remains alive.

• SB 2528, Doty’s “revenge porn” and “sextortion” act, remains alive. It would create civil and criminal liability for the unlawful disclosure and promotion of “intimate visual material.”

• SB 2698 would create the Mississippi Veterans Honor Medal program.

— The Associated Press contributed to this story.