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Jails have become 'dumping grounds' for inmates with mental illness, Marion County sheriff says

Jail Handcuffs
Posted at 4:15 PM, May 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-12 06:38:02-04

INDIANAPOLIS — The Marion County sheriff and the presiding judge say the state's failure to provide treatment for the mentally ill has caused a crisis in the local jail.

"We have individuals who are being detained in Marion County jail who are having to wait months to be able to get a bed in the state hospitals," said Judge Amy Jones, the presiding judge for the Marion Superior courts. "It is an issue, especially when you have people who are sitting in on misdemeanors, low-level felonies."

On Monday, the ACLU of Indiana and Indiana Disability Rights sued the Family and Social Services Administration and the Division of Mental Health and Addiction over "grossly inadequate" mental health services for inmates deemed incompetent to stand trial.

The problem has left dozens of defendants languishing in the Marion County Jail while they wait for space in Logansport State Hospital, which is the only place in the Indiana that provides supervised in-patient treatment for defendants who have been found incompetent to stand trial.

That locked-down, in-patient treatment is very expensive. Taxpayers spend $800 per day for each person sent to Logansport, according to the DMHA.

The ACLU lawsuit claims incompetent defendants wait an average of 121 days, or about four months, in jail before they are moved to the in-patient hospital. Three Marion County defendants were jailed more than 200 days while they waited for treatment, according to the lawsuit.

On Tuesday, the Marion County Adult Detention Center held 18 inmates who have been deemed incompetent and were waiting for beds to open at the hospital in Logansport, Marion County Sheriff's Office Capt. Mitch Gore said.

Those inmates are only one part of a deeper problem, Sheriff Kerry Forestal said.

“I, and many other sheriffs across the state of Indiana, have long decried the fact that our county jails have become dumping grounds for citizens suffering from mental health issues and substance use disorder," Forestal said in a statement to WRTV.

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Marion County Sheriff Kerry Forestal

"While we’ve made strides in recent years to address this issue, even more must be done, and quickly," he said.

While they spoke about the problems caused by the delay in treatment for inmates suffering mental illness, Forestal and Jones declined to speak specifically about the ACLU's lawsuit.

WRTV has asked an FSSA spokesperson to comment on the lawsuit and on the problems raised by Jones and Forestal.

The Marion County jail held 2,358 total on Tuesday. Officials estimate that 40% suffer some kind of mental illness, which includes those with substance abuse and other problems that do not render them incompetent for trial.

The jail held 112 inmates in specialized mental health housing units, which require extra supervision and closer monitoring — all of which makes their detention more expensive for taxpayers.

Jones said county officials have been raising "alarm bells" in recent years about the need for additional mental health treatment options to cut down the wait time for inmates who need help.

These folks should not be warehoused in the jail, Jones said.

"That's no place for them," Jones said. "They are not equipped to handle for providing mental health treatment on a long-term basis while an individual is waiting two, three months for a bed at a state hospital. That's how the alarm bells have been sounded over the last couple of years."

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Marion Superior Court Presiding Judge Amy Jones

Jones said Marion County judges found 97 defendants incompetent in 2021. Three of those were facing murder charges and three more faced level 1 felonies, the next highest level of criminal offenses. A level 1 felony carries a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.

Jones said 60 of the 97 defendants found incompetent to stand trial face misdemeanor and level 6 felony charges. A level 6 is the lowest level felony charge and carries a maximum sentence of 2.5 years in prison.

Those deemed incompetent and facing low-level crimes often spend more time waiting for treatment than the maximum sentences they'd receive if found guilty, Jones said.

"You can see that the time the clock is ticking and it's ticking very quickly," Jones said. "So you've got a significant amount of people that are charged with those low level offenses were sitting in jail for almost the whole time."

The ACLU doesn't specifically address the treatment delays for low-level criminal defendants in its lawsuit. The ACLU is asking a federal judge to order the state to "immediately place prisoners who have been committed to the (DMHA) into appropriate placements where competency restoration services can be provided or to otherwise provide them with appropriate restoration services."

Long before the lawsuit was filed, Forestal said sheriffs across the state have been asking lawmakers for help. He said he intends to do so again when elected officials come back to the Statehouse.

"I’m hopeful the General Assembly will meaningfully tackle this issue in the next legislative session so our jails can return to being a place for bad people and not sick people," Forestal said.

Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at victor.ryckaert@wrtv.com or on Twitter: @vicryc.