About half the inmates in the parish prison have mental health issues and that number is growing as budget cuts continue to eliminate programs aimed at treating, rather than incarcerating, people with those problems, according to speakers at forum held Wednesday.

Billed as a community discussion, about 125 religious leaders, elected officials, law enforcement, health care professionals and others met at the Capital Area Human Services District office to discuss the impact of mental health issues and gun violence on Louisiana communities and to consider ways to solve those problems.

Statistics show that Baton Rouge had 199 murders between September 2010 and November 2012, said Cecile Guin, director of the Office of Social Services in the LSU School of Social Work. Ninety percent of those murders involved firearms and 87 percent of the victims were male, she said.

The numbers also show that the youngsters who commit violent crime usually have a low reading level, live in a dangerous neighborhood and have an untreated mental health and/or substance abuse issue, Guin said.

“We have an epidemic here and we must treat it as such,” Guin said.

Sid Gautreaux, sheriff of East Baton Rouge Parish, said the average homicide victim and perpetrator is between the ages of 17 and 25 years old.

“We are seeing more and more people coming into our system with mental health issues,” Gautreaux said.

Lt. Colonel Dennis Grimes, who is warden of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, said he has counted about 800 inmates in need mental health treatment out of about 1,600 inmates housed at the parish prison. Another 600 parish inmates are incarcerated in other facilities outside East Baton Rouge Parish, he said.

Grimes said he has tried to isolate the mentally ill from the general population and ended up turning a wing of the jail into cells that deal solely with mental health issues.

“The resources are limited at the local level,” Grimes said. The prison has one social worker and one psychiatrist, he said.

Grimes said the numbers are such that the inmates eventually will be released and they’ll live in this community. The choice, he said, is whether taxpayers in the community want the inmates fixing their cars or stealing them.

“Our mental health system is broken,” said William “Beau” Clark M.D., who as East Baton Rouge Parish coroner is involved in the involuntary commitment of people who are mentally ill.

The reason is lack of funding from local, state and federal levels, he said.

A key issue, Clark said, is creating a stable outpatient environment that ensures the treatment is ongoing. The law enforcement also needs options so that when a mentally ill person is acting out, for whatever reason, the only choice isn’t incarceration, he said.

“It costs money,” Clark said.

“Mental health has a tremendous impact on the taxpayers,” U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge. “There’s a need for resources.”

But Cassidy said the resources need to be spent on local programs, but too often the federal dollars don’t make it to services provided on a local level.

“Yes, the system is broken,” said Jan Kasofsky, executive director of the Capital Area Human Services District. “But the bottom line here is we are here to help people … No matter what happens to Medicaid and the budget, we will not turn people away.

“We need to come up with more solutions for our community,” she said.

State Sen Sharon Broome, who moderated the discussion called “Roots of Violence,” asked the participants to tack suggestions and comments onto posters that lined the wall.

After gathering the thoughts of the “stakeholders,” the group can the form realistic goals and make plans to reach those goals, she said.

“We need action steps, nothing voluminous, something doable,” said Broome, D-Baton Rouge. If the plans require changing some of the laws, Broome said she hoped to hold aside one of the five bills she is allowed to file this session, for that task.

“With the recent tragedies, mental health issues are at the forefront of our community concerns,” Broome said. “This community conversation will address some of the challenges that patients and their families face as it relates to access to care and obtaining mental wellness.”