Authorities call for better mental health care in justice system

- When the mentally ill clash with law enforcement, the outcome can sometimes be disastrous. But a lot of people are working to change that outcome and keep the mentally ill from ever entering the criminal justice system in the first place.

The Ramsey County Sheriff said today that one-third to two-thirds of the inmates at the jail could be mentally ill, and how to help those inmates continues to be an important an ongoing discussion.

Finally, Minnesota may be turning the corner on how to handle the clash between the mentally ill and law enforcement.

“There's a great awakening in our society and we're starting to build a system to deal with mental health more effectively, but that there's much to be done and we're just one loop in a larger community issue,” said Ramsey County Sheriff Jack Serier.

Right now in Minnesota jails, those who need mental help are identified and there are various new creative mental health programs offered. But in Dakota County, they're about to take things a step further, using a model out of London.

Deputies are doing some serious follow-up right now within the jail and, in the future, out in the field. 

“You pair a deputy or a law enforcement officer with a mental health practitioner, and they will actually go through the calls for service from the prior evening and they will have a list of frequent fliers or people who actively use government services that we know about and they will be proactively going out and speaking with these individuals on, checking in to see how they're doing,” said Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie.

All of this is good news to mental health advocates.

“I actually feel hopeful because they talked a lot about getting out of their lanes," said Sue Aberholden with National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). "Typically what happens is when we bring together the criminal justice folks, what they do is just complain about the mental health system, and what they realized today is they have to be part of the solution, too."

Many at the forum also said they'd like to see those suffering from mental illness treated as if they had cancer - no stigma, empathy and a lot of help.

“I think we're coming out of our silos that we've been in for perhaps too long, and we need to work together to address these problems," said Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom. "We can protect our community better when we do so.” 

One other major issue that everyone agrees needs to be addressed is the fact that there's no "drop off" for police to take mentally ill patients to. Right now there is usually no choice but jail even if no real crime has been committed.

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