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Barbour: Jailed mental patients doing better?'

By by Sid Salter / syndicated columnist
April 28, 2004
In dank, solitary confinement county jail cells across Mississippi, innocent people whose only crime is mental illness are decidedly not "doing better" they're doing time.
Haley Barbour campaigned on a simple, direct promise to the people of this state. Frustrated voters flocked to him. "Mississippi can do better," the Yazoo City Republican promised over and over again.
But in terms of the plight of mental patients incarcerated in county jail cells while taxpayer-built treatment centers stand empty and unused, the voters might as well have left Ronnie Musgrove in office. Same song, different singer.
Barbour, Musgrove tied
Former Gov. Musgrove provided zero leadership to get the state's court-committed mental patients out of jail and Gov. Barbour's new administration hasn't done one whit better.
The Barbour administration has offered absolutely nothing in the way of a solution to one of the sorriest chapters of state government waste and ineptitude ever written the fact that the Legislature built a total of eight mental health treatment centers with 160 bed spaces while 152 of them remain empty for lack of operating funds. Just like Musgrove.
Barbour didn't create this fiasco. The current leadership of both houses of the Legislature engineered this mess long before Barbour took office. Yet unlike the governor, both houses of the Legislature are at least making an effort to right this onerous wrong.
The House has proposed a 9-cents per pack tobacco tax hike that would dedicate all of the $21.9 million it raises toward funding all the centers. The Senate is talking about a plan to fund the centers at half-capacity with no tax increase. At least it's a plan.
But Gov. Barbour's only contribution to the debate has been to say he'll veto the proposed tobacco tax because he's "against raising anybody's taxes." One can only assume that incarcerated mental patients will leap for joy to learn that the governor has made such a Solomonic decision on their behalf.
It might be difficult to fault Barbour for his no-new-tax stance since it's been consistent since his campaign began. But for the governor to hold to that stance while offering no solution to getting mental patients out of county jail cells isn't a show of leadership it's just simply a calculated expression of a rather cruel willingness for innocent people to continue to suffer because it's politically expedient for them to do so.
Writing off the poor
The House wants to raise taxes to get the mental patients out of jail. The Senate wants to use contingency fund monies to make a step toward getting these innocent people out of jail.
Apparently, it's okay with Gov. Barbour if the mental patients stay in jail so long as he protects them from higher taxes. Perhaps that the "tough love" we hear so much about.
There might be some conservatives out there who call that kind of thinking "compassionate conservatism." But this is one conservative who sees that kind thinking toward the mentally ill as "let them eat cake" conservatism.
The relatives of wealthy, well-connected mentally-ill patients won't be incarcerated in county jail cells. They'll be placed in private treatment facilities without going through the county commitment process necessary for the poor to receive state mental health hospital treatment.
But relatives of the poor and the powerless in this state are being thrown in county jails to rot until a bed space opens in one of the state mental hospitals. Raise taxes. Cut spending. Do whatever you have to do. Get them out of jail.
Mississippi can with certainty "do better" than caging mental patients like criminals to cover for legislative ineptitude or a governor's political expedience.
Sid Salter is Perspective editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. Contact him at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail ssalter@clarionledger.com.

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