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'Broken' system, lack of services turn North Dakota jails into 'safe holding for the mentally ill'

Law enforcement officials and jailers in western North Dakota say that jails are warehousing those who have untreated mental illness or addictions because treatment facilities and programs are lacking.

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Editor's note: This is the second of four stories on the mental health challenges straining North Dakota's criminal justice system . Read the rest of the "System under stress" series here: Part 1 , Part 3 and Part 4.

KILLDEER, N.D. — A Dunn County sheriff's deputy was driving to the location of a call that someone was trying to enter a residence after 1 a.m. on Nov. 6, 2016. En route, the dispatcher radioed an update: The suspect had broken a window to gain entry.

When the deputy arrived at the home in Killdeer, he found a woman standing outside in the dark who was familiar to him from previous encounters: Jody Lynn Kuntz.

Kuntz, who had alcohol on her breath, said she was trying to fix the broken window. After the deputy made inquiries, Kuntz was charged with aggravated assault, felonious restraint and felony criminal mischief.

The assault charge involved the occupant of the house, who suffered four broken ribs and internal injuries. The charges later were dismissed after Kuntz agreed to pay the victim’s medical bills and for damage to the property.

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The incident was one of many encounters Kuntz had with law enforcement in southwest North Dakota and northwest South Dakota in recent years. She cycled in and out of courtrooms and jail cells for erratic, criminal behavior — charged with 22 crimes over the past decade, including seven felonies in North Dakota, with another 15 criminal charges in South Dakota.

In multiple North Dakota cases this summer, she was ordered to submit to psychiatric evaluations at the North Dakota State Hospital to determine her competency to stand trial.

In each case, she was found able to assist in her defense and capable of criminal responsibility. Law enforcement officials say Kuntz is an example of how untreated or poorly managed mental illnesses impose a significant burden on the criminal justice system, clogging court calendars and jail cells, which have become warehouses for the mentally ill, officials complain.

“I can tell you the system is broken,” said Patrick Weir, the Billings County state’s attorney and a former district court judge. “It does not work west of the Missouri River.”

As both a judge and prosecutor, Weir has been frustrated by repeated cases of people who have run afoul of the law and been involuntarily committed, only to be quickly released and cause problems that law enforcement officers must handle.

“The underlying problem is there is no medical facility west of the Missouri River that is capable of handling patients with substantial mental problems,” Weir said.

The lack of mental health services — and jails warehousing the mentally ill — has been a recognized problem for years in western North Dakota. An interim legislative panel, the Acute Psychiatric Treatment Committee, is studying the need for psychiatric treatment beds around the state and will report its findings next year.

“The jail has become kind of the safe holding for the mentally ill,” said Rachelle Juntunen, administrator of the Southwest Multi-County Correction Center in Dickinson. “The jail is not designed to be a mental health facility,” yet jails often house those in mental crisis because there are no other options. “So, the criminalization of the mentally ill is definitely happening.”

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North Dakota has a critical need for more mental health treatment beds as well as community-based services to provide long-term stabilization, said Juntunen, who is a licensed addiction counselor.

But mental health services in western North Dakota are difficult to access and only deal with low-level problems, she said. “The reality is they often do not exist.”

Without treatment and follow-through, “they end up back in jail,” Juntunen added. “They keep circling through the system,” sometimes ending up in prison. Only the most severely mentally ill get treatment, she said, and those who are treated at the State Hospital often are released back to jail without a care plan.

Jails aren’t equipped to handle mental illness. “The services in the jails just don’t exist,” Juntunen said. As warden of the North Dakota Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in New England, she sees inmates who reoffend so they can get treatment in prison.

“Inmates will say, ‘My mental health was spiking.’ These are things they say to you,” she said.

A 2017 survey by the Council of State Governments found 70% of North Dakota judges said they had sentenced defendants to prison terms so they could get treatment.

The vast majority of inmates in the Southwest Multi-County Correction Center have mental illness, chemical dependency or both, Juntunen said. “I would say well over 70%,” she said. “Substance abuse drives so many things.”

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The Southwest Multi-County Correction Center, housed in the Law Enforcement Center in Dickinson, North Dakota, is launching a community corrections program to deal with mental illness and drug addiction problems many criminal defendants have. Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press

Judges can order involuntary commitment to treat illnesses that can’t be treated locally if the person is deemed a risk to herself or others. If granted, a law enforcement officer then gets an order to transport the patient for treatment.

“Very often, when the individual sent away has been certified as not amenable to treatment locally, the individual is sent back in a short period of time,” Weir said.

With no local treatment options in cities including Medora, Killdeer and even Dickinson, the only option for handling a disruptive person who is in a mental health crisis is to hold the person in jail, but confinement can’t exceed 24 hours by law.

Soon, the person is back on the street, and the cycle begins once again.

'A never-ending battle'

Kuntz’s frequent encounters with law enforcement officers over the years display a mix of offenses that often involve disorderly conduct or driving under the influence — but sometimes result in more serious criminal charges.

After the assault, which resulted in a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of criminal mischief, Kuntz next was charged in Dunn County with felony criminal mischief and criminal trespass.

The charges stemmed from an incident on Oct. 30, 2018, when law enforcement officers were called to an oil pad where Kuntz was trying to turn off pressure relief valves for four oil wells — actions that Dunn County Sheriff Gary Kuhn said posed a clear risk to public safety.

Dunn County Sheriff Gary Kuhn in February 2019. Dickinson Press file photo

“That could have caused an explosion,” he said. “That could have caused a massive leak. That could have caused problems.”

Kuhn had numerous dealings with Kuntz over the past 20 years in law enforcement as a sheriff's deputy in Stark County and a state Bureau of Criminal Investigation officer before becoming the Dunn County sheriff.

“She’s a very intelligent woman,” Kuhn said. “(She) has a mental health problem. It would be amazing to find out what she’s capable of if she didn’t have those issues.”

The Forum's efforts to reach Kuntz, who is 44 years old and frequently changes her address, were not successful. Her lawyer, Peter Morowski, said he could not make a statement on his client’s behalf.

“I am unable to comment on Ms. Kuntz’s cases as they are currently open and pending before the Court,” he wrote in an email. “Further, given the confidential nature of matters involving or possibly involving mental health, I will not speak to those issues involving a client.”

Kuntz’s clashes with the law have been sporadic over the past decade. Failure to treat patients like her will inevitably result in periods of instability over time, Kuhn said.

“There will be periods when she’s completely fine,” he said. “It seems to go in spurts.”

Erratic behavior is at the root of some of Kuntz’s arrests. On Nov. 7, 2018, soon after she was charged in connection with shutting off oil well pressure valves, Kuntz was charged in Dunn County for criminal trespass and giving false reports to law enforcement.

Security video showed a woman identified as Kuntz entering an oil field office, turning on three coffee maker burners, putting a metal spoon in a microwave oven, then walking out of the building.

Kuntz pleaded guilty to the criminal trespass charge, and the charge for making false statements was dismissed.

Too often, law enforcement officers are called to handle situations that should be dealt with by mental health professionals, Kuhn said.

“It’s a medical issue, not a criminal issue,” he said. “It shouldn’t be our problem.” But, he added: “It’s a never-ending battle. We keep treating it like a criminal problem.”

James Hope, a prosecutor in Stark County, said the court system’s difficulties in dealing with defendants suffering from mental illness vary widely and include lack of funding, lack of treatment facilities and the need for better integration of the criminal justice and mental health systems.

“We really need a systematic review,” Hope said, with an effort similar to those that led to criminal justice reform and juvenile justice reform.

Since court decisions decades ago, the legal system seeks to impose the least restrictive treatment possible. Although treatment is preferred over incarceration, treatment stays often are brief, Hope said, leading to “revolving door” problems with some defendants cycling in and out of court.

“Somehow, we have to look at the whole system,” he said. “It would be appropriate for the Legislature to look at that, but a solution will cost money.”

Kuntz herself has advocated for better mental health services. In a letter dated March 7 to District Judge James Gion, she made passing mention of the need for improvements.

“… SW North Dakota has no resources for mental health and homeless people,” she wrote. “We need to fix that ASAP.”

'A staffing nightmare'

Sometimes, Capt. Ray Kaylor of the Stark County Sheriff’s Office feels like he’s running a service for transporting mentally ill patients from jail to psychiatric treatment units around North Dakota.

His responsibilities include overseeing prisoner transports from the Southwest Multi-County Correction Center, which often involve inmates with mental illnesses.

From 2018 to 2020, Stark County deputies handled 290 mental health transports at a cost of $85,667. Each transport takes two deputies away from other duties for anywhere from four to 10 hours, depending on how far away the available treatment bed is, he said.

“It gets to be a staffing nightmare, some of these transports,” Administrative Lt. Eldon Mehrer said.

“We get frustrated,” Kaylor said. “Some people we’ve transported three or four times. It’s a continuous cycle. When does it end? This is taxpayer money that is being spent.”

The frustrations don’t only involve time and money. Echoing similar comments from other law enforcement officials, both Mehrer and Kaylor said they are uncomfortable serving as the transport service for mental health patients.

Mehrer recalled a time when a 7-year-old child with mental illness was transported in a marked patrol car by a uniformed deputy. Kaylor spoke of an 11-year-old child who he had to transfer.

“I fought that,” Kaylor said. “I was court-ordered to do it. An 11-year-old child. Especially for young children, there should be some other alternative.”

Seeking solutions

A psychiatric ward in the former St. Joseph’s Hospital in Dickinson closed years ago, and since then the region has been without inpatient mental health treatment beds.

Local leaders are trying to come up with a way to add beds and programs to the former hospital, now called St. Joe’s Plaza.

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St. Joe's Plaza in Dickinson was once St. Joseph's Hospital. It's been identified by local leaders as a promising site for inpatient mental health treatment beds to serve southwest North Dakota. Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press

One proposal comes from the Heartview Foundation , an addiction treatment program based in Bismarck, which plans to apply for a state grant to add 16 residential treatment beds at St. Joe’s.

If approved, the program would be modeled on counterparts in Bismarck and Cando and would treat those with mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms, said Kurt Snyder, Heartview’s executive director.

“We would be looking to not just have those beds but expand our ability to support those folks when they’re released,” he said.

Heartview in Bismarck, which has 16 beds, helps about 400 people in treatment at any given time. “By far, the majority of folks are in our outpatient setting,” Snyder said.

Beds, he added, are reserved for “the sickest of the sick,” clients who need a safe, stable environment to achieve sobriety.

The Legislature’s Acute Psychiatric Treatment Committee is looking into the possibility of adding satellite locations to the State Hospital, and western North Dakota is at the top of the list for many.

CHI St. Alexius Health Dickinson is exploring adding both inpatient and outpatient mental health services under strategic planning in partnership with the North Dakota State Hospital and Badlands Human Service Center in Dickinson, said Kayla Kleinjan, vice president of patient care services at CHI St. Alexius.

Although Badlands Human Service Center can’t meet all of the area’s mental health needs, the services it offers are effective, said Rosalie Etherington, superintendent of the State Hospital. The human service center recently expanded services, including those for children and youth, through a multidisciplinary team.

The center also expanded its walk-in hours, allowing people to seek help for mental illnesses without an appointment.

Southwest Multi-County Correction Center in Dickinson recently hired an addiction counselor to try to better serve those who rotate in and out of jail.

In addition, the regional jail is establishing a community corrections program that Juntunen hopes to have going in January. “Rather than just locking people up and not giving them services and hoping they get better,” she said.

The community corrections program will address low-risk offenders. Those with mid-level mental illness problems can’t be placed in the community and are left to cycle in and out of jail, deteriorating over time.

An addiction treatment program like the one being considered by Heartview would help. “But it will not address the significantly mentally ill,” Juntunen said.

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