JACKSON, Miss.—Beverly Pool worries about her brother, Marvin Pernell, who was in the Oktibbeha County jail in Starkville, Miss., from July 2021 until January 2023 and is now at the Mississippi State Hospital, a state-funded psychiatric hospital in Whitfield, Miss. Now 48, Pernell is a military veteran who served in the U.S. Marines from 1994 to 1998.
In November, before his admittance to the hospital, an Oktibbeha county jail official told the Mississippi Free Press that Pernell was being held without trial while waiting for a mental health evaluation after an initial arrest for possession of stolen property. The official said he had been waiting for a bed to open up at the state hospital ever since a judge ordered the evaluation in 2021 and that such long waits are routine.
Over the course of multiple conversations with the Mississippi Free Press, Pool said she fears for her brother’s life and that he has a history of mental health struggles, but not crime.
“This is his first time ever being in any trouble like this,” she said on Nov. 4. 2022, before a bed finally became available at the Whitfield hospital. “And I understand they’re just a detention facility, so they’re just housing him there.”
“So my concern, I’m just really concerned about my brother’s welfare because, one, he’s not getting any mental health (assistance), nothing,” Pool added. “They just have him detained; they’re saying they’re waiting on a bed.”
“Instead of the individual getting the mental help they need, they’re putting them in jail, and it is not good, and I just don’t want my brother to deteriorate or, you know, something tragic to happen to him there,” Pool told the Mississippi Free Press.
Pool later said she received a call letting her know that Pernell had been transferred to the state hospital on Jan. 6, 2023.
Oktibbeha Circuit Court Judge James T. Kitchens first ordered the mental health evaluation in September 2021; he later issued an “Order for Commitment for Treatment and Continuing Mental Evaluation” in October 2021, the docket for the case shows. This month, he postponed a hearing in Pernell’s case from Jan. 5 to April 5.
Opening Mental Health Treatment Courts
New courts and programs could alleviate wait times for people like Marvin Pernell. At the Mississippi Capitol on Jan. 17, 2022, Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Michael K. Randolph told a joint meeting of the House and Senate Judiciary A committees about five newly created mental health court pilot programs.
“A Mental Health Treatment Court uses a problem-solving approach in lieu of more traditional court procedures for nonviolent offenders who have been screened and diagnosed with mental illnesses,” the Administrative Office of Courts said in a Jan. 17, 2022, press release. “The program includes screening, clinical assessment, education, referral for treatment, counseling and rehabilitative care, service coordination and case management.”
The “more traditional court procedure” ends in incarceration.
The Mississippi judiciary created five pilot mental health treatment courts, including in its 1st District (Alcorn, Itawamba, Lee, Monroe, Pontotoc, Prentiss and Tishomingo counties), 4th District (Leflore, Sunflower and Washington counties), 5th District (Adams, Amite, Franklin and Wilkinson counties), 7th District (Hinds County), and 14th District (Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties).
Randolph told lawmakers at the Capitol that county sheriffs told him many of the mental health-related cases they deal with involve people who are not taking prescribed medications regularly. He explained the impact of other intervention courts in the state, including the drug courts, and said they have saved the State $1 billion in incarceration costs since 2016.
Using a prepared document as a reference, Randolph offered lawmakers other evidence of the effectiveness of intervention courts, noting that, between 2015 and 2022, 875 people earned GED diplomas; 5667 obtained employment; 774 attended vocational schools; and 1,549 attended post-secondary education. From 2006 to 2023, 9,814 graduated from the drug courts and 933 babies were born drug-free, he said. Adult drug court participants paid $17,468,584 in court fines and $22,317,897 in drug court fees, the document showed.
“This is the most efficient operation of the State government bar none,” Randolph told the legislators. “There’s not one that produces like the intervention court does in savings.”
The Mississippi Free Press obtained data from the Mississippi Administrative Office of Courts showing that, in 2022, about the same number of people graduated from drug courts in the state as the courts terminated from the program.
Across all Mississippi drug intervention courts in 2022, including felony and juvenile courts, the data shows that there were 3,549 active participants; 1,374 new participants entered the program, 617 successfully graduated and the courts terminated 603 participants. If someone is terminated from a drug court program, that usually means they failed to meet the program's requirements, which may involve failing drug tests, failing to attend required meetings or committing new crimes.
The National Drug Court Institute said termination is the “ultimate sanction” in the drug court. “Participants may receive a criminal record of a conviction, with attendant collateral consequences such as ineligibility for certain public benefits,” the organization said. “Participants may subsequently be sentenced on the original charge(s), have their probation or parole revoked, or receive a jail or prison disposition.”
In his presentation to lawmakers on Jan. 17, Chief Justice Randolph said that adding mental health treatment courts to the system would add a layer of accountability for those in need of help.
"But this accountability factor—having to come to a court and say, 'Yes, I've been taking my meds' and everything, we're hopeful that (the participant will) have great improvement on the mental health aspect," he said.
Administrative Office of Courts Director of Intervention Courts Pam Holmes told the Mississippi Free Press at the Capitol on Jan. 17 that officials are still working out the details on how such courts will operate.
"There will be a lot of learning on the job as we go, and that's why we've reached out to the (Mississippi) Department of Mental Health and also the different (regional mental health services)," she said. "But we already are aware that there are some of the regional, local community health centers that are either at maximum capacity or their resources are not as great as they could be."
Holmes said only two of the five state judicial districts with funding to start a mental health treatment court have started seeing people: the 1st and 4th districts.
"These are individuals that were in drug court that have been identified and have taken the assessments that are eligible for being in the mental health treatment program," she said.
Holmes explained that mental health courts will create communities to provide services for individuals, like helping them maintain regular use of prescription drugs. She also said it will prevent people who commit nonviolent crimes from "being sent to (the Mississippi State Penitentiary at) Parchman, where they are further not going to receive that proper treatment that they could benefit from."
She said the goal is to "really stabilize the individual, bringing them back to ideally being a functioning individual in society."