Sheriffs: Mentally ill Iowans end up in jail

Counties not equipped to deal with problem

Rod Boshart
Published: January 22 2013 | 5:10 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 10:25 am in

DES MOINES — Two county sheriffs told state lawmakers that county jails are becoming the facility of last resort for Iowans with mental-health problems.

“We’re all hearing the same thing. The sheriffs across the state continue to raise this as one of their major, major issues. Mental health is a huge problem,” said Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson, whose mental health assessment and jail diversion program was touted as a model for early detection and intervention of people needing substance abuse or mental health treatment rather than incarceration.

“In a growing scale and a growing need, we’re seeing more and more violent offenders, more and more people who are those square pegs in round holes,” Thompson told members of the Iowa Senate Judiciary Committee, who are assessing the problems mental-health issues create for public safety and Iowa law enforcement after a series of deadly shootings around the country. Most recently, an incident at a Connecticut elementary school where a gunman with a history of mental-health problems killed 20 children and six adults.

Iowans need help

Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald said local officials in Ames came together to create a crisis intervention unit that has had positive results in diverting people facing criminal offenses who need mental health services to the facilities where they can receive proper treatment. However, funding sources continue to decrease, making it a challenge to keep such services available as Iowa’s county-based mental health system makes a transition to a regionalized service delivery network.

“Unfortunately, throughout our country, the county jails are the largest mental health facility within a county,” said Fitzgerald, who recently served as the national leader of a county sheriffs’ association. “County jails do not have the funding or skills to appropriately care for those individuals afflicted with a mental illness.”

Barb Gay, executive director of Foundation 2 Crisis Center in Cedar Rapids, which operates a statewide crisis counseling telephone hotline at 1-(800) 332-4224, said last fiscal year her agency received about 20,000 calls for crisis counseling and emergency services. For the first half of the current fiscal year, the volume has hit about 12,000, so her center is on target to exceed fiscal 2012. Suicide calls are increasing as well, she said, with about 160 suicide-related calls coming in every month from all 99 counties.

Weapon worries

Fitzgerald also expressed concern to state legislators that a 2010 change in Iowa law regarding gun permits has “tied sheriffs’ hands” in dealing with applicants seeking a permit to carry a concealed weapon whose federal background check indicates they have suicidal tendencies. He said sheriffs no longer have discretion in those cases because Iowa law “is silent and I must give that person a permit to carry a concealed weapon.”

“We need to make sure that we adequately fund the mental health system,” said committee chairman, Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids. “It’s a patchwork quilt of services. One of those patches is the county jail, and that is not an adequate way to deal with mental health conditions in Iowa.”

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