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Lawmakers aim to get people with mental health issues into treatment, instead of jail

A jail inmate, wearing an orange uniform and facing away, is laying on a plastic bed on a jail floor.
FILE PHOTO: Steve Burns
Some Indiana county jails, facing overcrowding issues, had to give people plastic beds on which to sleep.

Indiana lawmakers are trying to divert more people away from local jails and into mental health treatment. Advocates call a proposed bill “compassionate,” “humane” and “fiscally responsible.”

The legislation, HB 1006, creates a system for law enforcement to refer people to mental health centers. Those people must be assessed by a mental health professional within 48 hours. Next is a hearing no more than 24 hours later in front of a judge to determine whether they should be detained longer.

Dr. Christine Negendank is a psychiatry professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine. She’s worked in jails and prisons to help treat people with mental health challenges and said those facilities are not the best place for them.

“I’ve had the experience many times where a patient of mine goes into the jail system stable but, because they cannot get the treatment they need, when they’re released they’re very unstable and in a state of crisis,” Negendank said.

READ MORE: Indiana's mental health care systems need more funding

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Health care advocates, law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders and local government representatives all support the bill.

Dr. Brian Hart, representing the Indiana Psychiatric Society, backs the effort. But he said it will run into a problem – there are not enough mental health care providers or space in facilities.

“The mental health team would not have adequate time to prepare to do a proper evaluation, prepare for the civil commitment hearing,” Hart said.

A priority bill in the Senate, SB 1, aims to boost funding for mental health treatment centers.

Contact reporter Brandon at bsmith@ipbs.org or follow him on Twitter at @brandonjsmith5.

Brandon Smith has covered the Statehouse for Indiana Public Broadcasting for more than a decade, spanning three governors and a dozen legislative sessions. He's also the host of Indiana Week in Review, a weekly political and policy discussion program seen and heard across the state. He previously worked at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri and WSPY in Plano, Illinois. His first job in radio was in another state capitol - Jefferson City, Missouri - as a reporter for three stations around the Show-Me State.