Mental Health Beds Backlog Reduced, Work Remains

Officials from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene briefed members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings, Senate Finance, House Judiciary, and House Government and Operations Committee Tuesday on the state of the department’s mental health beds for individuals within the criminal justice system.

The Department reported significantly reducing the backlog for mental health beds. However, they noted their work to improve the system continues. As previously reported on Conduit Street, DHMH formed a stakeholder group to analyze and make recommendations to remedy the lack of capacity at state mental hospitals. The Secretary testified that a plan to implement the recommendations from a work group is in the works.

The Baltimore Sun reports on questions from legislators:

Lawmakers indicated they were pleased to see Mitchell’s initial steps. But some said they expect the state to develop longer-term solutions.

Del. Erek L. Barron said more work needs to be done to keep mentally ill people out of the courts in the first place.

“We’re talking about a population that is about as deep into the criminal justice system as you can get, but they don’t necessarily have to get this far,” said Barron, a Prince George’s Democrat.

Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, vice chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, said she’s troubled that those waiting for beds are stuck in jails “that aren’t set up to treat them.”

And because the court orders actually commit the individual to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene — and not sentenced to the custody of the county or state correctional system — it creates a legal liability issue for the jails that might amount to illegal imprisonment, said Dumais, a Montgomery Democrat.

“How do we prevent us being in this place where people are being illegally detained?” she asked.

The Washington Post provides additional background on the backlog that led to this briefing:

The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said the number of those on its forensic waiting list dropped from a high of 84 in May to 12 this month.

The reduction comes after mental-health advocates and corrections officials raised concerns this summer that a shortage of beds at Maryland’s five state mental hospitals had reached a crisis point.

 Some judges asked state health officials, including Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Van T. Mitchell, to appear in court and explain why they could not comply with legally binding orders.

The problem dates back about 10 years, but it has grown worse recently. Experts say the increase is due to several factors, including more people with mental illness being arrested and booked into jails without a matching expansion of state mental-health facilities, patients staying longer for acute illnesses, and private care providers declining to accept former criminal defendants who need continued help.

The legislators also heard testimony from representatives of the Judiciary, local jails, and advocates.

For more information:

Maryland’s Mental Health Treatment Wait List Shortened (The Baltimore Sun)

Maryland Reduces Mentally-Ill Waiting in Jail for Court-Ordered Hospital Treatment (The Washington Post)

Previous coverage on Conduit Street:

DHMH Work Group Seeks to Remedy Lack of Criminal Justice Mental Health Beds

Secretary Admits Mistake, Workgroup Develops Recommendations to Fix It