Beyond Mental Health Court: Is Michigan’s Mental Health System Broken?

Prison scene depicting mental health crisis in prison

Is someone you love being held in Michigan’s criminal justice system without proper mental health care?

Two years ago, I wrote about Michigan’s mental health system in conjunction with its criminal justice system because the two are often closely linked.

In 2018, after the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, news outlets reported that shooter Nikolas Cruz had been flagged as a problem long before. However, he never got the intervention he needed.

With the rise in drug-related deaths and suicide and the increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism that eventually becomes unmanageable for family members, law enforcement is often called upon to deal with problems that need psychiatric treatment.

Are some of these people criminals? Yes. Will they get treatment in jail? Not enough.

Michigan’s Disappearing Beds

On February 7, 2020, a Michigan sheriff pleaded publicly for help this week with an inmate who should have gotten a bed at a psychiatric hospital many months ago.

Chippewa County Sheriff Michael D. Bitnar has taken to Facebook to describe what is happening with an older, veteran inmate whose only recourse right now is the Sheriff’s office. This man was found incompetent to stand trial.

In addition, while the Sheriff’s office does provide some types of assistance, the man cannot communicate and is profoundly disturbed.

The problem centers around the fact that Michigan began to close its state-run mental health facilities in the 1980s. Private hospitals – who were supposed to pick up the slack for those who needed in-patient care – didn’t do it.

While advancements in psychotropic drugs made it possible for people struggling with mental illness to stay for shorter periods and be back in society, there will still always be people who need intensive care.

Psychiatric beds are expensive to maintain, psychiatrists and mental health workers are hard to find, and mentally ill patients don’t generate wealth for hospitals like cancer patients do. For a private hospital, it’s a lose-lose situation.

Where Do Mental Health Patients Go?

It begs the question, where do mentally ill people end up when they can’t get a bed?

One answer is, they often end up in jail and prison because their actions have brought them into contact with law enforcement.

When someone like this elderly veteran is found incompetent to stand trial, it doesn’t mean he gets to go free. It means he has to go through a process with the criminal justice system where he must undergo treatment until he is competent to stand trial.

It may take a long time for professionals to get him to a place where he can communicate.

In the meantime, he’s stuck in a county jail cell where his behavior may become a danger to the officers, who aren’t equipped to handle it.

What Reforms Can We Make?

The state does have sway over private hospitals. It can leverage the issuance of Certificates Of Need, which hospitals need to renovate or add wings to require them to add more psychiatric beds.

The state can also require insurance companies to reimburse hospitals for more challenging patients at a higher rate. Here are some other solutions identified by a MLive article:

  • Expand use to telemedicine services to maximize the use of psychiatrists.
  • Improve pay and training for behavioral-health workers across the board.
  • “Incentivize” hospitals to add beds through grants or better reimbursement rates.
  • Create a statewide registry of psychiatric beds so those looking to place a patient can more easily determine availability, a project that is in the works.
  • Expand the range of services so that fewer people need in-patient psychiatric beds.


If someone you love is suffering from mental illness and is being held in the criminal justice system without proper mental health care, call my office today. It is critical to have an experienced criminal attorney by their side.

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