Minnesota sheriffs are demanding legal action against the Department of Human Services (DHS), saying it has violated the law and jeopardized the health of dozens of mentally ill jail inmates by failing to admit them to state-operated treatment facilities.

The Minnesota Sheriffs' Association said this week it has documented at least 60 cases since 2015 in which DHS failed to comply with a state law that requires inmates to be transferred to a state psychiatric facility within 48 hours after being committed as mentally ill by a state judge.

"It is time for law enforcement ... to take action to enforce the laws of the State of Minnesota that are regretfully being ignored to the peril of public safety, safety of sheriff staff and harmful to those in jail with severe mental illness," the sheriffs said in a letter to state and local prosecutors.

The letter is likely to escalate a long simmering feud between county sheriffs and DHS over how to accommodate a growing number of jail inmates with serious mental illnesses.

As many as one-fourth of the inmates in county jails across Minnesota suffer from a diagnosed mental illness — hundreds of people on any given day — yet county jails are generally ill-equipped to offer care, provide medications or keep them safe.

The situation was exacerbated by a 2013 law that requires the state to find a psychiatric bed within 48 hours for any jail inmate who is determined by a judge to be mentally ill. The statute, known as the "48-hour law," was meant to reduce a growing number of inmates languishing in jail cells without mental health treatment.

Acting Human Services Commissioner Chuck Johnson called the sheriffs' letter "unproductive,'' saying in a statement that it "actively damages our ability to work together to address what we all know is needed — a mental health system that works better between the courts, law enforcement, hospitals and our safety net for the people of Minnesota."

Johnson also placed some of the blame on the counties, noting that over the past two years sheriffs have failed to transport 82 people within 48 hours of a court order.

"The challenges and solutions are complicated, and this type of rhetoric does a disservice to the people who are working every day to improve the mental health system in Minnesota," he said.

The agency's leaders have warned since 2013 that they did not have enough psychiatric beds and staff to accommodate the expected surge in admissions from the 48-hour law. In 2014, 113 jail inmates with mental illnesses were transferred to state psychiatric facilities under the 48-hour law. By last year, that number had doubled to 227 patients, according to DHS data.

Paranoid delusions

In a recent case cited by the sheriffs, a 26-year-old man with schizophrenia was held for 14 days in a county jail after being committed by a judge for treatment at a state facility. The inmate, Isiah Malik White, suffered from paranoid delusions and prolonged bouts of auditory hallucinations, at times believing that the television was speaking to him, according to court records.

During his time in custody, the man repeatedly threatened to assault and kill jail staff, records show.

Hennepin County deputies tried to transport White to the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter on Feb. 18, but were told on arrival that no bed was available.

In a letter to the court, the human services commissioner said the hospital was unable to admit White because it was operating at full capacity due to an influx of court-ordered admissions, according to court documents.

White was finally admitted to the facility on Thursday, but went two weeks without being evaluated for his mental illness, said his attorney, Douglas McGuire. He was given doses of the antipsychotic drug Haldol, but that failed to control his aggression or address his other symptoms, McGuire said.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said top DHS officials, including the acting commissioner, should be held in contempt of court for "failing to uphold their duty" under state law.

"These people are withering away and suffering in jail for no good reason," Stanek said. "I don't believe anyone should be allowed to disobey a court order or a state law."

29 days

In one recent case in Blue Earth County, a man was held for 29 days after he was committed to a state psychiatric facility. Another inmate, in northern Beltrami County, was held for 21 days, according to a survey conducted by the state Sheriffs' Association.

In many of these cases, inmates have lashed out at staff and other inmates, forcing jails to take extra security measures, said William Hutton, executive director of the association.

"These individuals are decompensating right in front of our corrections officers," Hutton said. "These jails are absolutely and unequivocally not where we want to treat inmates with mental illness."

In 2016, Minnesota's legislative auditor evaluated the quality of mental health services in county jails, and found it often fell far short of professional standards.

For instance, professional standards suggest that jails assess the mental health of inmates within prescribed time periods, and help inmates with serious mental illness transition back to the community when released. Yet such basic services are frequently not provided, according to a 104-page report by the legislative auditor.

The review also found at least 52 suicides and 773 attempted suicides in Minnesota jails from January 2000 to June 2015. Some of these deaths could have been prevented with more frequent well-being checks of inmates with mental illness, the auditor found.