I run the largest jail in Minnesota.
As sheriff, an important part of my job is ensuring public safety — protecting the residents of Hennepin County from those people who commit criminal acts. Ultimately, we want to make sure that people who commit crimes don’t reoffend.
Sometimes the best way to do that is to keep people locked in jail until their case is heard in court and they are sentenced to prison. Sometimes the best solution is to treat the underlying conditions that caused the offender to commit the crime in the first place. In either case, courts have held that jails are required to provide medical care to inmates that is consistent with the standard of care they would receive at medical facilities outside of jail.
Unfortunately, the federal government makes that very difficult.
Once inmates reach our facility, they are no longer eligible for the medical assistance they would receive on the outside. A federal law called the “Medicaid Inmate Exclusion Policy” means that the care we provide at our facility — for mental health, chemical dependency treatment or any other medical issues — is paid for by county residents. It comes out of the sheriff’s budget and our taxes. If these people were treated anywhere else outside of jail, their medical bills would be paid by Medicaid or state insurance.
I am comparatively lucky. I serve a county with good resources and county commissioners who understand that offering quality treatment to inmates can help prevent crime in the future. Our county has had the wisdom to provide medical care that is often on the cutting edge of treatment for incarcerated people. Not all of my colleagues are that fortunate.
It’s time that all incarcerated inmates have access to the medical care that will help address medical issues that may be underlying causes of crime. Doing so will prevent lawsuits against facilities for providing inadequate care that further drain resources from the work that jails and prisons do to protect society. That is why I am asking our congressional delegation to get this bad federal policy changed.
David P. Hutchinson is the Hennepin County sheriff.