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How Can SD Keep People with Mental Health Issues Out of Jails?

Hospitals in South Dakota and across the country face a shortage of beds for people experiencing mental health crises. (SilasCamargo/Pixabay)
Hospitals in South Dakota and across the country face a shortage of beds for people experiencing mental health crises. (SilasCamargo/Pixabay)
October 2, 2017

PIERRE, S.D. – South Dakota is one of five states where state law says people experiencing a mental health crisis can be held in a correctional facility.

Advocates for people with mental health issues call that a big problem.

John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, says jails and prisons aren't built to handle this population, and that using them criminalizes mental health disorders.

He blames the lack of psychiatric beds throughout the system, which affects people of every age and demographic.

"One example that we've figured out doing analysis: We now have fewer state hospital beds per capita than we did in 1850,” he points out. “And again, that's not 1950, that's 1850."

To help alleviate the issue in South Dakota, the state has set up a fund to speed up mental health screening for criminal defendants.

It's hard to know how widespread the problem is, but the online magazine The Marshall Project found on at least seven occasions at a hospital in Pierre, children ages 12 to 16 spent a night in jail, in some cases after attempting suicide.

Those figures are from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that oversees hospitals.

The challenge is greater in rural areas, where law enforcement often doesn't have the resources to get people to the proper facility.

But Snook says that isn't the fault of police departments.

"Too often, people jump to demonize or blame law enforcement for outcomes that they really have no control over,” he explains. “And the reality is, we've set up a system that doesn't adequately fund treatment beds."

Snook says the biggest hurdle in this crisis is a lack of federal dollars, due mainly to a provision that prohibits the federal government from funding care at an in-patient facility. Some states are looking into fixes such as telemedicine to bridge the gap in rural areas.

"But at the end of the day, it's a problem that really is only solved by prioritizing this population and spending money – oftentimes, money that you may need to take from other, just as needy areas, but there aren't a lot of other solutions," Snook stats.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - SD