- Associated Press - Sunday, June 28, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - An Iowa family that lost a son to suicide in jail earlier this year is pushing for changes in the way people with mental illnesses are treated by authorities.

Jim Cornick tells the Des Moines Register (http://dmreg.co/1IDKP2K ) that sick people shouldn’t be sent to jail when they clearly need treatment. Since his son’s death on his 46th birthday in January, Cornick has been meeting with officials and urging improvements to the system.

Family members say the events that led to Jeff Cornick’s suicide began in 2011 when he was arrested on suspicion of arson after threatening to set fire to gas cans in his Des Moines home.

Jim Cornick doesn’t make excuses for his son but he believes the system can be improved to better help people with mental illnesses.

“I feel like maybe I can make a difference, move the needle a little bit, raise some awareness,” he said.

Jim Cornick said families should be able to tell mental health professionals what they observe in their ill relatives, and it should be easier to commit patients for more than a few days of treatment.

Cornick also said jail staff should get more training in handling people with mental illnesses. And when a judge has ordered someone into treatment, officers should know about the order so they can take that person to a hospital.

Authorities have said they are open to making improvements, but they also defend the way Jeff Cornick’s case was handled.

“We don’t feel like we did anything wrong, but damn it, we feel responsible,” said Polk County Sheriff William McCarthy, who attended Cornick’s funeral with his jail administrator.

A judge unsealed Jeff Cornick’s records at the Des Moines Register’s request. Cornick spent four months in jail after his 2011 arson arrest before receiving a deferred judgment and being placed on probation. He was jailed in January after missing a required addiction treatment meeting.

Jail officials said none of Jeff Cornick’s actions on the day he was arrested suggested he was suicidal, so he didn’t receive special treatment and wasn’t monitored continuously.

McCarthy said he appreciates Jim Cornick’s pragmatic approach to seeking improvements.

“We bleed for that guy, and I can’t even imagine what he has had to go through,” McCarthy said. “If he can figure a way to improve the system, we are open-minded in every way, shape or form.”

When Jeff Cornick was arrested in 2011, a civil commitment order was in place but officers didn’t know about it. Police spokesman Jason Halifax said officers might have taken Cornick to a hospital that night if they had known, but he still would have been likely to face charges because of his actions.

County Attorney John Sarcone said he agrees that jails and prisons should not serve as substitutes for mental hospitals, but people do have to be held accountable for their actions.

“At some point, if some of the activities they’re involved in are criminal, you’ve got to deal with that because you’ve got to protect the public,” he said.

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Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com

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