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Sheriff lobbies for increased mental health funding

Senate committee approves $2.2 million measure

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Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth contends additional state funding will be needed to provide a growing number of inmates with access to adequate mental health treatment behind bars.

Without it, dozens of inmates at Ingham County’s jail will essentially be forced to get sicker and sicker, he said.

“This isn’t about money, although money is a component to this issue,” Wriggelsworth added. “The problem is the limited resources that we’re able to give people over here. As these folks wait for treatment, they're only getting sicker and sicker, and it ends up taking more resources to finally get them some rehabilitation when they get it.”

Every year, about a dozen Ingham County inmates are found to be mentally incompetent to stand trial for their crimes, Wriggelsworth said. At that point, they’re typically shuffled off to a state forensic center for treatment. And here’s the hiccup: Limited space usually forces those inmates to wait for an average of 10 months inside the jail.

Statewide, on any given day, about 115 defendants are usually waiting behind bars or while released on bond for treatment availability. That waitlist often strains local jails that are sometimes forced to provide behavioral health services to them in the meantime. And jails, notably, aren’t always the best place to address mental illness.

“This is a major community health and safety issue we’re experiencing not only here in Ingham County, but in all 83 counties in Michigan,” Wriggelsworth said. “With limited access to treatment facilities, inmates incompetent to stand trial wait months on end in jail while their cases stall and go nowhere.”

During that time, those inadequately treated mental illnesses are left in jail. It’s unfair to the defendant, the victims and the jailers that are forced to float the bill for their extended stay, Wriggelsworth said. And at a daily cost of $85, those inmates can cost the county about $25,000 each during their extended stay.

But hope is on the horizon. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed an additional $2.2 million in funding this year for the state’s forensic centers — spelling an increase of about a dozen full-time employees to help streamline access to treatment. And the proposal is already gaining traction, said State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing.

“This is a pervasive issue across the nation, and Michigan is no exception,” Hertel said. “Without adequate funding for mental health facilities, jails have become some of the country’s largest treatment centers, but they’re not equipped to provide proper care. This issue will only continue to grow until we invest in its solution.”

Wriggelsworth recently testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee to lobby for increased mental health funding and ensure that Whitmer’s proposed allocation remains within the state’s next fiscal budget. The committee approved it Tuesday and sent it to the Committee of the Whole to be scheduled for full Senate consideration.

Hertel said the mental health “crisis” is a direct result of how the state has prioritized mental health in previous budgets. Without that infusion of funding, the problem will only grow worse across the state, he said.

“Opening up another wing at the forensic psychiatry center will move people out of jails faster and get them out of treatment and back into society,” Hertel added. “Jails aren’t the proper place to provide comprehensive mental health treatment. It’s just cruel to keep people in places where they aren’t getting proper treatment.”

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