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Newspaper story cited in mental health ruling

A federal judge who ruled this week that he will appoint an expert to oversee changes to the state’s mental health system cited a Daily Leader story in his ruling.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves said attorneys for the federal government have proved the state is doing too little to serve people outside the confinement of mental hospitals.

“The United States has met its burden and shown that despite the state’s episodic improvement, it operates a system that unlawfully discriminates against persons with serious mental illness,” Reeves wrote late Tuesday in a ruling on a federal lawsuit.

Reeves cited a 2018 Daily Leader story about a man who spent almost two years in the local jail waiting for a bed to open up at the state hospital. The man spent 22 months 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.

Reeves wrote that forensic beds at the hospital have largely been excluded from the lawsuit but that the state faces challenges with the availability of those beds as well.

Reeves cited Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing saying: “He’s not a criminal, he’s a sick man, and his confinement to the jail instead of the hospital is shameful.” The man, Randy Smith, was eventually given a bed at the hospital not long after a story about his plight published in The Daily Leader.

“The article, the phone calls — it finally got someone’s attention,” Lincoln County Public Defender Lesa Baker said about the story helping Smith get the treatment he needed.

Judge Reeves ordered the state and federal government to each suggest three possible names to act as a special master, along with a proposal for that person’s role, to oversee changes to the system.

Until Reeves decides on the special master’s role, the depth of federal intervention into the mental health system won’t be clear.

It’s also unclear if the state will appeal the ruling, but lawyers appeared to be laying the grounds for an appeal during a monthlong trial this summer.

The U.S. Justice Department argued that Mississippi’s movement toward community services was far too slow, forcing hundreds or thousands of people into avoidable hospital stays. Judge Reeves found that Mississippi is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said “unjustified” mental hospital confinement is illegal.

The judge rejected Mississippi’s arguments that it was progressing on its own and that a judge couldn’t find it in violation. He wrote that the law and court decisions “protect persons trapped in a snail’s-pace deinstitutionalization.”

“The United States’ experts provided dozens of examples of individuals who were unnecessarily hospitalized or hospitalized too long because they were excluded from community-based services,” the judge wrote.

The federal government catalogued a litany of alleged transgressions during the trial, including mentally ill people held in jails because crisis teams don’t respond; people forced to live far from their family because services aren’t available in their hometowns; and people who make repeat trips to state mental hospitals because there’s no effective planning for them to transition to community services and the most intensive kinds of services aren’t made available.

The federal judge said that even in some cases where community-bases services are supposed to be available, that availability is illusory. He cited the case of Adams County, whose sheriff testified that the regional community mental health center doesn’t respond to his calls.

“Geographic availability does not always translate into true accessibility,” Judge Reeves wrote.