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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: 307836

Reported Deaths: 7119
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto20784248
Hinds19894408
Harrison17493302
Rankin13316275
Jackson13099243
Madison9896210
Lee9859169
Jones8293160
Forrest7523146
Lauderdale7189237
Lowndes6265144
Lamar610784
Lafayette6028117
Washington5280132
Bolivar4770129
Oktibbeha455297
Panola4442103
Pearl River4420139
Warren4281118
Marshall4273100
Pontotoc416472
Monroe4057132
Union403775
Neshoba3988176
Lincoln3871108
Hancock372185
Leflore3468124
Sunflower329389
Tate322781
Pike3181104
Scott310572
Yazoo304368
Alcorn297764
Itawamba296876
Copiah293065
Coahoma289677
Simpson287484
Tippah284868
Prentiss275659
Marion265979
Wayne261341
Leake261173
Grenada254982
Covington254580
Adams245982
Newton244859
George237847
Winston225981
Tishomingo222067
Jasper219748
Attala213373
Chickasaw204857
Holmes186471
Clay182454
Stone179131
Clarke176876
Tallahatchie175540
Calhoun163230
Yalobusha158836
Smith158634
Walthall130543
Greene129433
Lawrence126323
Noxubee125933
Montgomery125542
Perry125138
Carroll120826
Amite120141
Webster113432
Jefferson Davis105432
Tunica102525
Claiborne101330
Benton97225
Kemper95226
Humphreys94332
Franklin81923
Quitman78916
Choctaw72817
Jefferson64828
Wilkinson64727
Sharkey49617
Issaquena1686
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 519071

Reported Deaths: 10712
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson754131487
Mobile37774798
Madison33868494
Tuscaloosa25283443
Montgomery23969565
Shelby23112238
Baldwin20638300
Lee15524165
Calhoun14286311
Morgan14140268
Etowah13664345
Marshall11957219
Houston10383278
Elmore9994200
Limestone9814147
Cullman9475188
St. Clair9429234
Lauderdale9218227
DeKalb8747181
Talladega8060171
Walker7092275
Jackson6755110
Autauga6727103
Blount6488135
Colbert6205130
Coffee5401112
Dale4768110
Russell428938
Franklin419982
Chilton4083109
Covington4053114
Tallapoosa3893146
Escambia388074
Dallas3527149
Chambers3500122
Clarke346360
Marion3066100
Pike305875
Lawrence295395
Winston272372
Bibb256458
Marengo248661
Geneva245875
Pickens232959
Barbour224955
Hale218775
Butler212366
Fayette208960
Henry187844
Cherokee182044
Randolph176941
Monroe171540
Washington164038
Macon154848
Clay149454
Crenshaw149357
Cleburne146041
Lamar139334
Lowndes136453
Wilcox124327
Bullock121340
Conecuh109028
Perry107926
Sumter102932
Coosa99328
Greene90734
Choctaw58724
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