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Federal judge intervenes in Mississippi mental health system

MGN Online

Judge Carlton Reeves said he wants to appoint an outsider to oversee changes to Mississippi's mental health system.

Posted: Sep 4, 2019 10:55 AM
Updated: Sep 4, 2019 3:12 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A federal judge will appoint an expert to oversee changes to Mississippi's mental health system, saying that attorneys for the federal government have proved the state is doing too little to serve people outside the confinement of mental hospitals.

"The United States has met its burden and shown that despite the state's episodic improvement, it operates a system that unlawfully discriminates against persons with serious mental illness," U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves wrote late Tuesday in a ruling on a federal lawsuit.


U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves | Photo: Megan Bean / Mississippi State University

Reeves wrote that he's "keenly aware of the judiciary's limitations" in cases like this. He ordered the state and federal government to each suggest three possible names to act as a special master, along with a proposal for that person's role.

Until Reeves decides on the special master's role, the depth of federal intervention into the mental health system won't be clear.

It's also unclear if the state will appeal the ruling, but lawyers appeared to be laying the grounds for an appeal during a monthlong trial this summer.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood's office defended the state in the lawsuit. On Wednesday, Hood said Mississippi's mental health agency does what it can with a limited budget, and he sharply criticized lawmakers for not putting millions more dollars into community-based services. He said that starting in 2013, he sent several letters to top lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, telling them the state was at risk of being sued over mental health care. Hood said his office had collected tens of millions of dollars in settlements from unrelated lawsuits, and legislators ignored his suggestion that they use that money to improve mental health care.

"They buried their heads in the sand. That's what Tate Reeves has done," said Hood, who is the Democratic nominee for governor and will face Tate Reeves — the Republican nominee and no relation to Carlton Reeves — in the Nov. 5 election.

Hood said he did not yet have a suggestion who should serve as special master or what that person should do.

"It's just another situation where we have to fix a problem that the federal court has ordered us to do," Hood said. "Many of us don't like a federal court telling us what to do. I don't like it. We ought to fix our own problems before a federal court has to step in."

The U.S. Justice Department argued that Mississippi's movement toward community services was far too slow, forcing hundreds or thousands of people into avoidable hospital stays. Judge Reeves found that Mississippi is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said "unjustified" mental hospital confinement is illegal.

The judge rejected Mississippi's arguments that it was progressing on its own and that a judge couldn't find it in violation. He wrote that the law and court decisions "protect persons trapped in a snail's-pace deinstitutionalization."

"The United States' experts provided dozens of examples of individuals who were unnecessarily hospitalized or hospitalized too long because they were excluded from community-based services," the judge wrote.

The federal government catalogued a litany of alleged transgressions during the trial, including mentally ill people held in jails because crisis teams don't respond; people forced to live far from their family because services aren't available in their hometowns; and people who make repeat trips to state mental hospitals because there's no effective planning for them to transition to community services and the most intensive kinds of services aren't made available.

The federal judge said that even in some cases where community-bases services are supposed to be available, that availability is illusory. He cited the case of Adams County, whose sheriff testified that the regional community mental health center doesn't respond to his calls.

"Geographic availability does not always translate into true accessibility," Judge Reeves wrote.

Joy Hogge, director of mental health advocacy group Families As Allies, said it's been clear since 2011, when Mississippi was cited by the federal government, that it was violating the law.

"I hope this will be an opportunity for our state to look at how the system should be structured ... so that all of the parts work together and so that we don't have the gaps that lead to the problems that were referenced in the ruling," Hogge said Wednesday.

Editor's Note: The Associated Press updated this article at 2:49 p.m. with information from Jim Hood. 

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 266598

Reported Deaths: 5852
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto17807191
Hinds16967332
Harrison14298204
Rankin11280221
Jackson10976190
Lee9088145
Madison8619169
Jones6782118
Forrest6236124
Lauderdale6128192
Lowndes5564120
Lafayette5229101
Lamar507465
Washington4951125
Bolivar4149109
Oktibbeha409482
Panola388281
Pontotoc378560
Warren3698103
Monroe3693110
Marshall358570
Union357764
Pearl River3508106
Neshoba3499154
Leflore3122109
Lincoln307688
Hancock296362
Sunflower293075
Tate281162
Alcorn273554
Pike271081
Itawamba270063
Scott260849
Yazoo257156
Prentiss254554
Coahoma251555
Copiah250749
Tippah250150
Simpson243872
Leake238467
Marion225973
Grenada224272
Covington222473
Adams215371
Wayne215034
Winston207771
George204839
Newton200046
Attala197464
Tishomingo195661
Chickasaw189644
Jasper182538
Holmes172268
Clay167537
Tallahatchie157535
Stone152925
Clarke148662
Calhoun141822
Smith130726
Yalobusha123835
Walthall115037
Greene114529
Noxubee114126
Montgomery112736
Lawrence107617
Carroll106922
Perry105331
Amite102426
Webster97424
Claiborne89725
Tunica89321
Jefferson Davis88930
Benton86523
Humphreys84824
Kemper81020
Quitman7149
Franklin70717
Choctaw63813
Wilkinson59925
Jefferson57121
Sharkey45717
Issaquena1606
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 443009

Reported Deaths: 6662
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson649101007
Mobile31746574
Madison28413217
Tuscaloosa21566275
Montgomery20088332
Shelby19452132
Baldwin17333189
Lee13261107
Morgan12678142
Etowah12141181
Calhoun11555206
Marshall10487123
Houston9031164
Limestone838181
Cullman8296124
Elmore8243110
Lauderdale7946107
DeKalb7900107
St. Clair7876130
Talladega6523112
Walker6050183
Jackson603245
Colbert558194
Blount548586
Autauga540762
Coffee466964
Dale412785
Franklin377550
Russell358415
Chilton346873
Covington340880
Escambia339244
Tallapoosa3163109
Dallas313696
Chambers305470
Clarke303336
Pike265231
Lawrence255855
Marion254661
Winston234742
Bibb222948
Geneva213047
Marengo210531
Pickens200431
Hale186144
Barbour183438
Fayette178829
Butler174860
Cherokee166031
Henry160025
Monroe152621
Randolph146636
Washington142727
Clay130746
Crenshaw124845
Macon122837
Cleburne122125
Lamar120622
Lowndes116836
Wilcox108322
Bullock104628
Perry100518
Conecuh98022
Sumter90627
Greene77923
Coosa64018
Choctaw52124
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