Over the past few months, with repeated arrests of the same people, the seeming catch-and-release structure in place within the criminal-justice system has been thrust into the local spotlight.
One question law-enforcement personnel and the media hear regularly is, “Why can’t the system do something for these people?” Another variation of that question is, “Why don’t you just have them committed?”
It’s not that simple.
Tennessee is one of several states that legislatively requires law-enforcement officers to transport mentally ill patients to treatment facilities if they pose a threat to themselves or others.
“When someone is committed to a mental health facility, it’s the sheriff’s responsibility to transport them,” Cumberland County Sheriff Casey Cox told 1057 News recently.
Last year, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department placed two new vehicles into service, solely to provide transportation. And within the past year, those two vehicles have each amassed in excess of 50,000 miles. That’s 100,000-plus miles just for transporting patients or prisoners. In less than a year’s time.
Cox presented anecdotal evidence in which two Bradley County deputies transported a patient to a mental-health facility in Memphis – five and a half hours away – where they’d been assured a bed for the patient had been secured. The facility in Memphis had been determined to be the only one with an available bed. When they arrived, however, the bed they were told had been reserved for that patient had already been allocated to someone else.
The deputies had no option other than to turn around and drive the patient back to Cleveland. The county had no recourse and received no reimbursement for the time and the expense of transporting a patient on a futile trip.
Bradley County had to absorb the cost of nearly 24 man hours (two deputies traveling five and a half hours each way, plus time involved with interacting with staff at the mental-health facility, including overtime), plus transportation expenses and wear and tear on the vehicle.
A bill being considered by the state legislature’s Ways & Means Committee had aimed to address the sheriffs’ responsibility with regard to the growing mental-health issue.
“It’s supposed to give the sheriffs some relief,” Cox said. “If it passes, the only thing sheriffs will be responsible for are our inmates, people we are in custody of.”
But, he added, the county sheriff’s office remains responsible for the cost of transportation; and it’s responsible for the person while in their care. And the money for that care comes out of the sheriff’s department budget, which ultimately comes from taxpayer dollars.
“That’s a State of Tennessee problem,” Cox said, adding the issue of transportation and the sheriffs’ responsibility for mental-health patients “made it to the top of the list for the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association” at their recent meeting.
Much of the mental-health problem among the jail population is a result of substance abuse, Cox pointed out. “It’s gotten worse as the opiate problem has gotten worse,” he said.
Cumberland County Jail Administrator Captain Tim Claflin agreed with the sheriff’s assessment. Some of the inmates are people who have turned to substances as a way to deal with problems in their lives. “It’s a lot of self-medication,” Claflin observed. “There’s a lot of dual issues there – the mental health and the drug addiction.”