Minnesota’s county jails and courts are being overwhelmed by adults with mental illness because the state lacks suitable housing, health care and therapeutic services to stabilize their lives, legislators were told at a state Senate hearing Tuesday.

Thousands of mentally ill inmates and patients under court commitment orders are cycling through the criminal justice system, failing to make the transition back to their communities after they leave treatment or confinement, according to a series of witnesses who work in criminal justice and mental health care.

“We’ve allowed jails to become the dumping ground for the mentally ill,” said Hennepin County District Judge Jay Quam, who presided over the county’s Mental Health Court the past three years.

“I hate to say this, but Minnesota is … behind Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi,” he said. Quam urged legislators to streamline the legal process for committing people to state care and getting them out of county jails.

“We need a mental health response to a mental health crisis,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI). “Mental health treatment is not just a pill. It’s therapy, stable housing, a job, a crisis plan and support.”

‘We did not do well’ for mentally ill

Legislators held the hearing in preparation for funding proposals to be introduced in the 2014 session, prompted in part by a series of Star Tribune stories detailing mental health breakdowns in the state’s criminal justice system.

“When the state institutions closed down, we promised all kinds of programs, but we did not do well at all for the mentally ill,” said Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, who led the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “After 30 years, they are living under bridges, homeless, in jail.”

It’s estimated that 70 percent of youths in Minnesota’s juvenile justice system have at least one mental health diagnosis and 60 percent of the adults in jail have similar disorders.

In Ramsey County’s juvenile system, for example, records show that more than 50 percent of the adolescents are on psychotropic medications. And among inmates in the state prison system, at least 60 percent of the women and 25 percent of the men are receiving mental health services.

“The recommended solutions haven’t changed for years,” Abderholden said. “I hope you will fix them.”

Consequences with jail terms

Addressing one widespread perception, Abderholden urged legislators to understand that most mentally ill people are not violent or dangerous. “People with a serious mental illness are more likely to be victims and not the perpetrators,” she said.

Among NAMI’s legislative proposals is the creation of quick-response mobile crisis teams in each of the state’s 87 counties — groups of experts who could help divert a mentally ill person into treatment rather than jail.

Quam told legislators that the court commitment process for adults with mental illness needs to be streamlined and capped at two weeks because inmates with mental illness “decompensate” rapidly as jail terms drag on. He said it often takes six months for a jailed, mentally ill person to go through competency and commitment hearings.

And when mentally ill offenders in state prisons are finally released, they often find themselves back behind bars, their probation revoked because they were unable to find housing. “There have been times when we’ve — I hate to use the word — ‘dumped’ a mentally ill person at the hospital’s emergency room because there are no resources for them,” said Nan Larson, director of health for the Department of Corrections.