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: 468498

Reported Deaths: 9100
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison31907468
Hinds30552569
DeSoto29532342
Jackson22868335
Rankin21016355
Lee14393214
Madison13961263
Jones13053215
Forrest12879231
Lauderdale11244292
Lowndes10148171
Lamar9972122
Pearl River8569208
Lafayette8008136
Hancock7110107
Oktibbeha6764117
Washington6756146
Neshoba6350200
Monroe6304156
Warren6267159
Panola6036122
Pontotoc599292
Bolivar5960143
Marshall5917115
Union558885
Pike5424133
Lincoln5192127
Alcorn509388
George454766
Scott447392
Leflore4377138
Tippah431780
Itawamba429192
Prentiss429074
Copiah423883
Simpson4238108
Wayne419663
Tate418999
Adams4174109
Yazoo411486
Sunflower4057104
Covington404891
Marion399699
Leake389784
Coahoma385996
Newton360273
Grenada3489100
Stone342657
Tishomingo320987
Attala318285
Jasper308261
Winston298191
Clay282672
Chickasaw277464
Clarke271784
Holmes257685
Calhoun256939
Smith241546
Yalobusha215447
Tallahatchie213849
Walthall203457
Lawrence202431
Greene202045
Perry195053
Amite191251
Webster191141
Noxubee173437
Montgomery168652
Jefferson Davis164041
Carroll158936
Tunica146533
Benton137531
Kemper136538
Claiborne124134
Choctaw123824
Humphreys122036
Franklin114127
Quitman100925
Wilkinson98335
Jefferson85832
Sharkey61620
Issaquena1916
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 757893

Reported Deaths: 12784
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1082301712
Mobile694251158
Madison47738562
Baldwin35347420
Shelby34758281
Tuscaloosa32576495
Montgomery32249645
Lee21576200
Calhoun19621363
Morgan19061307
Etowah18363413
Marshall17028252
Houston15881337
St. Clair14724270
Limestone13908178
Elmore13812239
Cullman13756228
Lauderdale12909263
Talladega12124200
DeKalb11705220
Walker10047303
Autauga9371119
Blount9272146
Jackson8970132
Coffee8550150
Colbert8229160
Dale8162142
Escambia632298
Tallapoosa6255165
Covington6214153
Chilton6152128
Russell586753
Franklin558292
Chambers5155127
Dallas4569173
Marion4490114
Clarke447070
Pike439188
Geneva415999
Lawrence4002101
Winston399982
Bibb388975
Barbour334667
Marengo317778
Monroe306844
Butler305878
Pickens296166
Henry288550
Randolph288255
Hale282981
Cherokee275649
Fayette268569
Washington241844
Crenshaw226962
Clay219260
Macon211154
Cleburne205746
Lamar184638
Conecuh173337
Lowndes167856
Coosa160031
Wilcox153033
Bullock145642
Perry132430
Sumter122635
Greene117941
Choctaw71925
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