Sheriffs: Mentally ill people swamping Indiana jails

County jails have become the "insane asylum" for Indiana as state hospital care for the mentally ill has declined, a sheriff told a legislative committee in Indianapolis on Monday.

Since the 1980s, many state mental hospitals have been closed or downsized as part of a shift toward community-based care. But the sheer number of mentally ill people who need hospital treatment but can't afford to pay for private care or who can't, or won't, stay on the medication that helps them cope with daily life are swamping the system, Sheriffs Kenneth Murphy and Steve Rogers said. And jails have been taking up the slack.

"Quite frankly, we have become the insane asylum for the United States, not just the state of Indiana," said Murphy, sheriff of rural Franklin County in southeastern Indiana, which is nearer to Cincinnati than it is to Indianapolis.

Murphy and Rogers, who is sheriff of Howard County in central Indiana, told the Interim Study Committee on Corrections and Criminal Code that they struggle to cope with mentally ill inmates who they don't believe really belong behind bars. Both sheriffs estimated that as many as one-fourth of jail inmates in Indiana may have serious mental illness.

"Jails are the largest mental health facilities in most counties," Rogers said. Especially in smaller counties, other resources just aren't there, the sheriffs said. Rogers described a typical scenario in which a mentally ill person quits taking or can no longer afford medication, commits a crime such as battery, goes to jail, and does the same thing again when he or she is released.

One Franklin County Jail inmate, Murphy said, was convinced that dispatchers were burning his brain with a laser and sought a protective order against them.

"Most of these people do not need to be in jails," Murphy said.

"This goes back to the past when we dismantled the state mental health system and went to a community-based system," said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary. Murphy also pointed back to 1986, when the state took the "drastic" step of closing some mental hospitals.

The sheriffs did say jails could play a role in the mental health system as what Rogers called a "triage point" where officials could determine where mentally ill people should be placed.

They also suggested that prosecutors and mental health courts could help steer mentally ill people to appropriate care, and that several counties could combine their resources to create regional inpatient treatment centers to avoid sending them to jail.

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