Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the Rivers McGraw legislation was amended to include mental health diversion programs.
The Senate approved legislation Tuesday which would establish mental health diversion pilot programs in four judicial districts across the state.
The pilot programs, which will be in Rankin/Madison, Lafayette, Louisville, and Harrison Counties, will offer alternate sentencing for anyone with a diagnosed mental illness who commits certain drug or alcohol-related crimes. Rather than jail time, sentences could include screenings, counseling and rehabilitative care.
“Hopefully this bill will allow us to save kids’ lives rather than churning them through the criminal justice process,” said Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, who presented the bill.
The legislation, which passed with only one vote opposed, largely replaces earlier legislation inspired by the death last fall of Rivers McGraw. The 20-year-old former Jackson Prep football champ committed suicide shortly after his friends bailed him out of jail following an arrest for driving under the influence. McGraw had a history of drug addiction.
The earlier legislation would have required police to hold anyone between the ages of 18 and 21 arrested for driving under the influence or drug possession until his or her parents can collect them. Supporters of that legislation had argued that such arrests can be a traumatic experience for young adults and said that having a parent or legal guardian there can offer stability.
But others questioned the legality of the bill and the practicality of implementing. The bill would have required anyone issued a citation for misdemeanor drug violations to also be arrested and held. The Mississippi Sheriffs Association opposed the bill.
The new legislation, Tindell said, maintains the spirit of the original bill while side-stepping any legal pitfalls.
“I appreciate the original intent of what they were trying to do, but you have 20-year-olds who’ve fought for Iraq and then they come back. Are you going to call their mom when they get arrested?” Tindell said. “While the intent is good, it’s not real-world applicable.”
According to the new legislation, police would be required to advise anyone between 18 and 21 that, when arrested, they have the right to call their parents, in addition to their one phone call. Police would also notify them of diversion programs that are an alternative to arrest.
“It’s so they don’t get this overwhelming sense that their world is over, their dreams are over,” Tindell said. “They need to understand that this (arrest) isn’t necessarily going to affect them for the rest of their life.”
Tindell said he spoke to McGraw’s mother and step-father, and they understood the need for the amendments.
“In my heart of hearts, I believe what we did will save more lives than letting a 21-year-old call his mom or dad,” Tindell said.