Coffee County Sheriff Dave Sutton addressed the Coffee County Commission regarding the state’s mental health system and the strain it puts on jails at its regular meeting on Aug. 12.
He said he noticed one of the topics at the Association of County Commissioners of Alabama conference is the jails in Alabama.
“It goes back to the simple fact that we are having to deal with an exorbitant amount of mental health patients,” Sutton said. “And mental health patients are overwhelming us, even here at the Coffee County office.”
He discussed the mental health program and its flaws.
“We have a program where when we do deal with mental health, they go before a board, they go before the probate judge and sometimes they’re put into a bed space,” Sutton said. “Bed spaces are far and few anymore—it’s hard to get a bed space. So that means they either turn them back out to the general public, they send them home until we can get a bed space or somehow they try to figure out a way to put them in the jail.
“We do not want those people in our county jails. We cannot deal with them, we are not capable of it and we’ll make do the best we possibly can with it. However, an example this last week, we took patients into the system, took them to where we’re supposed to take them. One case had deputies tied up for 12 and a half hours waiting for that patient to get through the door to see a medical person.”
He said that deputies have been tied up for three hours and five hours in similar cases. He said although the county can’t keep a deputy tied up that long, it can become risky to leave those patients alone to wait.
“The probate judge has put in his order that we will remain on-site for no more than 30 minutes,” Sutton said. “But it gets kind of risky when we leave someone sitting in an ER and we leave that patient behind. We have to weigh the odds and take a look at what’s actually going on with that individual.”
Sutton reiterated the bed space problem in the system.
“Once we get committed to it (a bed space), we get over there—and we’ve been over there before and they take away the bed space before we even get to that location,” Sutton said. “So we have to turn around and come back. It’s getting to be very bothersome and very costly for the county—paying those road deputies mileage and what have you.”
He said putting a mental health patient in jail can also come with liability that can cost the county.
“Unless we’ve got a charge against them, it’s kind of hard to put them down and put them in that jail because we become liable for that individual,” Sutton said. “It becomes a big risk.”
Sutton said that the CCSO will attend the ACCA conference and that he will make sure to address the problem at the conference.
“That has got to be a focus of attention down there (at the conference),” Sutton said.
Commission Chairman Dean Smith agreed with Sutton.
“Last night I had a young lady in my Sunday school class and she’s nursing and they asked her to go a psych ward and try that,” Smith said. “She had one patient that went berserk, took her all day and all night just working that one patient. And he threw her up against a wall and eventually ran her out of the room. We don’t have mental institutions anymore that’s capable of handling those people, we’re in a bad situation. Hospitals can’t handle them because they’re not equipped for that and the sheriff can put them in jail but all the liability that comes with that. Someone has to face-up to the facts.”