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Why The Tennessean reports on mental health, criminal justice system

Why The Tennessean reports on mental health, criminal justice system

Tennessee lawmakers this year passed a new law in honor of slain Belmont University student Jillian Ludwig.

In November, Ludwig was on an afternoon walk in a park near Belmont’s campus when she was fatally shot in the head by a stray bullet. She was 18. 

Police say the bullet was fired by Shaquille Taylor, who had previously been deemed incompetent to stand trial in another violent crime but did not meet the standards for involuntary commitment.

In the wake of her tragic case, lawmakers took action. The new law, which takes effect July 1, blocks defendants who are deemed mentally incompetent and unable to stand trial from legally buying or possessing a gun.

But the law also requires those defendants to be committed to a facility for mental health treatment, raising questions about whether the state is prepared to take care of those mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Already, there has been a revolving door in the Davidson County jail of defendants with similar stories to Taylor’s. So how are local officials trying to address the issue? How will new state laws play a role? Investigative reporter Kelly Puente this week dives into the topic.

I asked her a few questions about her time in Nashville and how she went about reporting this story.

Kelly, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. Tell us a little about yourself and what brought you to the Tennessean.

I got my start as a newspaper intern in Long Beach, California, in 2006, and it’s to hard believe I’ve been in journalism now for nearly two decades. Over the years, I’ve covered almost every beat from education to crime and courts. I’ve lived most of my life in Southern California, so when I was offered the job as an investigative reporter in Nashville last year, I jumped at the chance for a big change. I love the investigative beat because you have the opportunity to do stories that can drive change and really make a difference in people’s lives. But it’s also one of the most challenging, as you have to be patient, detailed and willing to dig deep.

How did you first learn about this revolving door in our local jails?

This has been a major issue across the country, but I first noticed the impact here in Nashville with the shooting of Belmont University student Jillian Ludwig and the recent case of Carl Hamilton. Hamilton’s case was especially disturbing to me because he was released from custody and then allegedly raped an Amazon delivery driver the next day. I felt like our readers deserved an in-depth story to highlight these cracks in our criminal justice system and explain how these things can happen.

What are the big challenges toward providing mental health treatment?

One of the biggest challenges is staffing for psychiatric beds. For example, Tennessee’s Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, which provides beds for mentally incompetent defendants who are developmentally disabled, is licensed for eight beds but is currently only staffed for four beds — and that’s four beds for the entire state. It’s similar to the staffing shortages facing places like nursing homes and prisons. It’s tough finding people willing to take these challenging jobs for relatively low pay.

How could new state laws play a role? Is there new money to help?

The new state laws can hopefully lead to more people getting treatment for their mental health issues, but the challenge will be in implementing the new laws as many counties do not yet have programs in place to evaluate and treat mentally ill people in the criminal justice system. The governor’s budget provides about $5.4 million to implement two laws that would mandate mental health evaluations and treatment for misdemeanor offenders and require automatic commitment for anyone deemed mentally unfit to stand trial. Mental health advocates are worried that the funding won’t be enough to cover an influx of people needing treatment.

Finally, when you aren’t reporting, what do you like to do in your free time? What’s on your playlist? It is Music City, after all.

I’m still relatively new to Nashville, so I spend lots of free time exploring the city and checking out all the live music. On weekends, I love to hike in Percy Warner and ride my bike through Shelby Bottoms. As for what’s on my playlist, I was a never a huge country music fan, but I’ve since embraced it. I’m a big fan of local artists like Margo Price and Jason Isbell. I saw Sierra Ferrell at the Ryman a few months ago and she was amazing!

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