A Missouri law that allows the state to confine violent sex predators in mental health facilities indefinitely after they serve prison sentences is causing a space crunch for nonviolent patients with mental illness.
The Missouri Department of Mental Health is making more spaces available for a steadily growing population of sex offenders, but at the same time the department is cutting back on hospital care for severely mentally ill patients because of budget limitations.
Starting this week, DMH plans to start moving 23 sexually violent predators from its treatment center in Farmington to Fulton State Hospital, which is a secured facility.
To make room for those people, the department will be transferring about 25 nonviolent patients from Fulton to the Center for Behavioral Medicine in Kansas City. Seventy other nonviolent patients already have been moved from Fulton to other department facilities in eastern Missouri.
The new patients at the Kansas City facility, which is opening an additional 15-bed unit, still will reduce the number of available beds for people with severe mental illness.
"We're down to the nub," said Dick Gregory, the Mental Health Department's regional director. "Cutting back and cutting back. ... We're in retrenchment mode."
Mental health advocates say the sex predators should be dealt with by the state's courts and prisons, instead of taking spaces away from severely mentally ill patients.
"I understand why sexual predators should not be on the street, but they should not be taking up mental health beds," said Guyla Stidmon, executive director of the Kansas City chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Missouri isamong 20 states that allow sexual predators to be committed to mental institutions after they serve prison sentences. While keeping those predators confined prevents them from being a danger to others on the outside, there is some question about how many will ever be rehabilitated enough to be freed.
A recent Associated Press investigation found that the average cost nationwide to keep sexual predators in mental institutions is about $96,000 per patient annually. Missouri's rate is $98,915, while it would cost about $17,000 per inmate to keep them in prison.
When Missouri's program began in 1999, it had 19 patients. That number has grown to 155, and only two have fulfilled requirements for conditional release.
"They can become productive citizens," Stidmon said. "But treatable illnesses are being ignored now. The sexual predators are really getting the best care."