Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek tells a story about a man named Robert who has been through his jail 31 times — 15 in the past 2½ years.

Robert, said Stanek, is a minor offender commonly cited for trespassing, vagrancy and disorderly conduct, but never a felony.

He is homeless, has a substance abuse problem and is exactly the type of repeat offender that sheriffs across the state want to keep out of county jails.

“I think quite honestly it’s society’s dirty little secret,” Stanek said. “We’ve criminalized those who suffer from mental illness. They end up in jail, stay in jail and recycle through the jail.”

Stanek spoke Friday at a meeting convened by U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who is sponsoring legislation to help those with mental illness by increasing funding and collaboration among criminal justice, juvenile justice, veterans treatment and mental health systems.

The Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act of 2015, which would reauthorize the 2004 Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in late April. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House.

“This is about saving people’s lives,” said Franken, who has discussed the issue across the state. “This is about giving police the training to recognize when they’re entering a situation that involves a mental health situation.”

Among other things, the bill would award grants to correctional facilities to identify and screen for inmates with mental illness, and provide treatment to address mental health and substance abuse problems. It would also fund training of law enforcement to identify and respond to incidents involving such inmates. In addition, it would fund development of post-release transition plans.

Stanek has estimated that one-third of the roughly 40,000 inmates who pass through the Hennepin County jail annually need psychiatric treatment.

Since 2000, at least 36 prisoners have committed suicide in the state’s county jails, according to a Star Tribune investigation in 2013. It found that inmates with mental illness were sometimes held for months without adequate psychiatric care as they awaited competency evaluations and sentencing.

Last October, the Hennepin County jail began using a new assessment tool, similar to a system at New York’s Rikers Island, that classifies inmates at admission by risk and provides social services, including mental health counseling, with the hope of reducing recidivism.

The effort has succeeded at treating many homeless people who often wind up at emergency rooms and shelters, said Leah Kaiser, a manager at Hennepin County’s Human Services and Public Health Department. But, she said, it has become clear that more reforms will be needed.

Hennepin County Medical Center officials told Franken the hospital’s 102 inpatient psychiatric beds are not ideal for offenders who may pose a risk to other patients.

However, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the hospital is considering the addition of a 16-bed crisis residential unit for the type of individuals law enforcement agencies are trying to keep out of jail.

 

Twitter: @MarcusEHoward