Settlement aims for better options for mentally ill defendants
January 27, 2016 11:30 PM
Richard Bouhet/AFP/Getty Images
By Rich Lord / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Incompetent defendants who sometimes wait for months in jails on minor charges, and others stuck indefinitely in forensic mental hospitals, may move quickly toward trials or long-term homes under a lawsuit settlement approved Wednesday.
Philadelphia will get the first batch of new mental health “placements” — which could include secure homes in communities — but Allegheny County will later see some of the 120 units for incompetent defendants that the state Department of Human Services must develop under its settlement with plaintiffs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
A mentally ill person arrested for stealing three Peppermint Patties, as was one of the plaintiffs, “does not have to be sitting in a maximum security forensic hospital at $900 a day,” said Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “It is a whole lot cheaper to provide him with the necessary support and care in the community than it is in a jail or mental hospital.”
Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas said the settlement won’t put violent defendants in communities, but will get some nonviolent people out of jammed mental hospitals by “making sure that they need to be in the forensic system, or they might be able to be served in another part of the system equally well or better.”
When defendants are not competent to understand the charges against them or to help their defense lawyers, they must get competency treatment, which the state provides at Torrance State Hospital in Derry and Norristown State Hospital in Montgomery County. The ACLU and law firm Arnold & Porter, based in Washington, D.C., sued the department in October, claiming that incompetent defendants were languishing in jail awaiting transfers to the hospitals, while others sat in those hospitals for years. Some wait in solitary confinement in jails, and two people died awaiting transfer to the hospitals, according to the complaint.
The complaint and its exhibits told stories like that of “E.M.,” a man in his mid-20s accused of public drunkenness and “patting a teenager on the behind,” who spent three years bouncing between the Allegheny County Jail and Torrance, unable to reach competency. He was released only after his father sued.
The 237 total beds in the two hospitals aren’t enough, resulting in a waiting list now at 220 defendants.
In addition to agreeing to find appropriate places for 120 incompetent defendants — which Mr. Dallas said would cost a few million dollars — the department will spend $1 million on housing and services for mentally ill defendants in Philadelphia. The secretary said the department has money to start the process, but would need new allocations for future years, adding that some of the placements would cost the state less than jail or hospitalization.
Mr. Dallas said the nature of the “placements” will be based on the treatment needs and security demands of the defendants. He noted that public safety is the prime consideration, and the department consults with prosecutors and judges before discharging defendants from the forensic hospitals. There are no plans to build new mental hospitals.
The ACLU and state didn’t agree on a hard deadline for getting new defendants, after they are deemed incompetent, out of jails and into hospitals. They will negotiate that issue over the next three months. Mr. Dallas said he didn’t want to make “too many rash decisions based on a system that has not been functioning very well for a long period of time.”
The agreement won the approval Wednesday of U.S. District Judge Sylvia Rambo of the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
Rich Lord: email@example.com or 412-263-1452.
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