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Legal processes for mental health cases being re-evaluated in Jackson County

Published: Jun. 24, 2021 at 8:08 AM CDT
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PASCAGOULA, Miss. (WLOX) - In an effort to better help people with mental illness who find themselves in the Jackson County legal system, a special investigator has been appointed to evaluate the court’s processes when it comes to those cases.

Jackson County Chancery Court Judge Neil Harris has appointed attorney Melissa Baria DiFatta as the county’s mental health ombudsman. She will investigate the process that the state takes in caring for people with serious mental health issues in Jackson, George, and Green counties.

“I hope that we can look into the system, see where the failures are and where the successes are, build on the successes and try to help eliminate some of the failures and tighten up our processes,” said DiFatta.

During her investigation, DiFatta will be working closely with law enforcement officers like Sheriff Mike Ezell. Ezell said he believes this is the first step in solving these recurring issues.

“Oftentimes, somebody with issues ends up getting arrested. They end up in court, they end up in hospitals, they end up in jail,” said the sheriff. “We need to stop this cycle of things that are not working.”

It’s a cycle that Jackson County Chancery Clerk Josh Eldridge said is increasing the number of mental health cases.

“Over the past five years, our mental health numbers are looking at doubling and, probably just in the last year, the current year, we’re probably looking at being 30-40 percent higher than the prior year,” said Eldridge. “That goes back to the cycling problem that the judge was looking at. Why do we continue to have these people back in here needing services?”

DiFatta said the primary focus of her investigation will be on lowering the number of people needing repeated care.

“I’ve seen some of the same people in five months come right back through with the same issue,” said DiFatta. “There is definitely a problem there. So that’s one of the main things we want to work on.”

The goal of the investigation is to enhance the evaluation of mental health patients that come through the legal system and assisting them to get the help they need so they can become productive members of society.

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