Sen. Franken Talks Mental Illness Crises and Criminal Justice with Northland Experts

Heidi Enninga
March 30, 2015 06:27 PM

Prisons and jails are increasingly becoming home to the mentally ill, but local law enforcement, judicial and mental health experts say a failed system means the mentally ill get wrapped up in a criminal justice system that doesn't have the resources to treat them. 

Sheriff Ross Litman said 43 percent of the 230 inmates in the St. Louis County Jail are dealing with some kind of mental illness.

Local leaders told Senator Al Franken, (D-MN) Monday afternoon in Duluth during a roundtable discussion on the issue that that's evidence the system is essentially turning mental illness into a crime.

Lt. Chad Nagorski with the Duluth Police Department said that mental illness was a factor in two of the three homicides in Duluth this year. Both were fatal stabbings, one in a Super One Foods grocery store and another in Duluth home. 

"It's a horrible thing to see, it's two families, a number of families now that will never be the same," Nagorski said. "Since 2007 we've had about a 35 percent increase in calls for service related to mental health issues. It's becoming a much larger issue."

Local experts told Franken say the mentally ill often end up in prison after committing crimes. 

"People languish in prison which really don't belong in prison and when they get out, they end up back again," Franken said. "It's a waste of resources for our society. 

Even though law enforcement is on the front lines of the issue, officers are not equipped or trained to act as mental health professionals. Sally Tarnowski is a Sixth Judicial District judge and said jails are being used as mental health beds. Unfortunately, she said, the incarcerated aren't treated as patients and don't get the medication and treatment they need. 

"When you go to the jail you go not well and you come out not well and maybe worse," Tarnowski said.

Senator Franken is re-introducing legislation with bipartisan support that he said would improve access to treatment and help the mentally ill before they end up behind bars. 

"Some of them really would be better served and society would be better served they were getting treatment instead of being in prison," Franken said.

Local experts are already working on solutions too, and St. Louis County mental health court is one of them. Tarnowski heads the effort and said it provides comprehensive help to the mentally ill, from getting them on medication to making sure they have a place to live.

"We help them to get well, and hopefully not commit anymore crimes,"  Tarnowski said.

The Duluth Police are embedding a psychologist and training officers in crisis intervention. They also have been able to utilize the Birch Tree Center as a temporary place for mental health treatment. 

"Although we're still working in the right direction, we still have a long ways to go," Nagorski said.


Heidi Enninga

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