Why 6 Nonviolent Offenders With Mental Illnesses Are Being Forced To Stay In A Nevada Jail

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At least a half-dozen Nevadans with mental illnesses who had been ordered by a court to receive inpatient psychiatric medical care are instead being forced to stay in jail, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports. They’re remaining incarcerated due to a lack of available mental health funding.

Since December, Clark County District Judge Linda Bell has sentenced at least six nonviolent offenders to get inpatient treatment through the mental health court in lieu of serving a prison term. But Nevada Adult Mental Health Services has been blocking these would-be patients’ release from jail — by as much as three months in some cases — citing insufficient funding for mental health beds in local group homes.

“It’s a complicated mess,” said deputy public defender Christy Craig in an interview with the Review-Journal. “They’ve known since December and it’s February and they never bothered to tell anyone.”

In one particularly egregious case, a 63-year-old woman who had been imprisoned for trying to steal a bag from a Las Vegas tourist has already been in jail, waiting to be released to a mental health home, for longer than the original prison sentence she was supposed to serve.

Bell is now holding hearings where she has subpoenaed a variety of state mental health care officials in order to figure out what to do with the jailed patients. Nevada Adult Mental Health Services claims that it likely won’t have enough money to accommodate more patients in group homes until at least July, the end of the fiscal year, because mental health appropriations for 2013 were significantly lower than in the preceding years. In fact, Nevada instituted the fifth-largest cut to mental health funding between 2009 and 2012 of any state in the country.

Craig believes Bell may ultimately be forced to release the offenders — but even that outcome is unlikely to be ideal for them, since about 95 percent of those who are adjudicated through the mental health court don’t have anywhere to go and often end up homeless.

This isn’t the only time in the past year that Nevada’s mental health services have come under scrutiny. Last year, a bombshell investigation by the Sacramento Bee found that doctors at the Rawson-Neal psychiatric hospital in Nevada had dumped thousands of poor and homeless patients with mental illnesses onto buses headed to San Francisco with nothing but a few snacks and several days’ worth of medication. Doctors allegedly believed that these patients would have a better shot of receiving adequate care in the Golden State.

The city of San Francisco is now suing Nevada over the patient-dumping scandal, claiming the practice cost the city at least $500,000 in public funds to house and treat the patients.

Nevada lawmakers seem to have taken note about the crisis in mental health funding. Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) established a new mental health council to review the state’s services via an executive order last December. Lawmakers on an interim finance committee approved $4.5 million in new funding for mental health beds and housing earlier this month.

But this issue isn’t unique to Nevada. In an interview with ThinkProgress last summer, the sheriff for Cook County, Illinois explained that the criminal justice system often fails to effectively treat people with behavioral disorders. “Conservative numbers are 25, but we think it’s closer to 30 or 35 percent of our jail population that has a mental illness… so we’ve effectively become the largest mental health hospital in the country,” Sheriff Tom Dart told ThinkProgress. “When I go to the mental health unit, they’re saying, ‘Sheriff, can you help me get a place to stay when I get out of here, I have nowhere to go, no one will take me.’ It’s horrible.”