It’s In Your Court: Mentally ill citizens shouldn’t be in jail

by Judge Steve Halsey

In the Sept. 9, 2013 issue of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, there was a lengthy front-page report on the inherent unfairness, and possible violation of human rights, for mentally ill defendants to be languishing in jail without proper mental health treatment.  I have seen this abhorrent situation in court myself.  Recently, a woman in her 20s with a history of mental illness sat in jail for about 30 days for a minor probation violation because county human services staff could not find a bed for her in an appropriate mental health treatment facility.  I do not blame the human services agency.  I do not blame the prosecutors.  I place blame on all of us.

Here are a few disturbing quotes from the Star Tribune article:

On any given day, the Hennepin County Jail holds 100 to 200 inmates with severe psychiatric disorders, according to records reviewed by the Star Tribune.  They represent fully one quarter of the jails population, and they languish there, on average, for three months before getting proper psychiatric care.

Across Minnesota, judges, attorneys and sheriffs cite dozens of similar cases in other county jails.  They describe a system that, in effect, criminalizes the mentally ill because of backlogs in the state commitment process and a shortage of psychiatric beds.

“What you’re seeing is people who are mentally ill being labeled as criminals,” said a frustrated Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek.

“Jailing people for their symptoms is a travesty,” says Sue Abderholden, who heads the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  “Not caring enough to do anything about it, which is what we are seeing year after year, is inhumane.”

In 2014, we will face another round of elections to the Minnesota legislature.  Undoubtedly, candidates for office will announce that, not only will they not raise taxes; they will slash the bloated bureaucracy that they believe is Minnesota state government.  It will indeed be shocking if any candidate from any political party announces that we, as a state, need to spend more money on mental health treatment and services for our fellow Minnesotans in dire need of such help.  Such an announcement is surely political suicide.  But, where does that leave us?

Mental illness is not treated by warehousing human beings in jail or prison.  Untreated mental illness results in repeated harmful, often dangerous, criminal behavior; harmful to the untreated persons and dangerous to the public at large.  The horrendous mass shootings and murders in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo. should be evidence enough that our nation, as a whole, has failed to provide adequate treatment opportunities for our mentally ill citizens.

This is a problem that will not go away by ignoring it and continuing to incarcerate the mentally ill.  The legislature must act.

Judge Halsey is the host of “The District Court Show” on local cable TV public access channels throughout the Tenth Judicial District.  Videos may be viewed at

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