Chippewa County Sheriff calls for reform of “broken” mental health system

Feb 11, 2020

One Michigan sheriff says reforms to assist the mentally ill outside of local jails are essential, calling Michigan’s mental health system “broken.”

Chippewa County Sheriff Michael Bitner posted a story to the sheriff department’s facebook page about one man in the county jail in need of professional mental health care.

Bitnar wrote that the man was found incompetant to stand trial in December, but may not be admitted to a state mental health facility until June.

According to the sheriff, this case is not unusual.

“As Sheriffs in this state we are bound to uphold the constitution,” Bitnar said. “We are not bound to run a mental health facility and that’s basically what we’ve become.”

Bitnar said there are as many as four inmates in his jail currently waiting for mental health beds.

Bitnar said local police are not equipped to assist people with severe mental illness and people left in the county jail often get worse.

“We obviously have medical and mental health providers here and if they aren’t severe we deal with that every day. But when they are severe like this they need real hardcore professional help and we just can’t provide that.”

Bitnar’s call for action comes as the state is considering reforms to its criminal justice system.

A state task force report released last month called for a “significant investment” in mental health services to be able to deflect and divert people from the criminal justice system into the mental health system.

According to findings in the task force report, nearly one in four people entering jails has a serious mental illness. That number is even higher in rural jails.

Chief Justice Bridget McCormack has previously said the higher incidence of mental health problems in rural jails is likely explained by a lack of resources in rural communities.

Sheriff Bitnar said he hopes the task force report is evidence that changes will be made.

“These are human beings that need some help,” he said. “It’s just really strange that law enforcement seems to be the ones that care the most about these people because nothing ever seems to get done.”