In some cases, people facing minor charges have spent longer in jail waiting to go to a hospital than the time they would have served had they been sentenced. State officials across the country are looking for possible solutions, from building more beds to keeping individuals with mental illness out of the justice system entirely.
In Pennsylvania, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the state Department of Human Services in 2015 over these delays, settled twice and has since filed another motion asking the court to intervene.
Data from the state Department of Human Services obtained by The Marshall Project and Frontline show that defendants are finally getting into hospital beds more quickly. As of April, defendants in Pennsylvania waited an average of 24 days to be admitted for “competency restoration”—the legal term for providing basic mental health care so someone is coherent enough to understand the charges against them and assist in their defense. That’s down from the peak of the crisis in January 2017, when defendants had been waiting an average of eight months to get into a hospital and an average of more than a year for Norristown State Hospital.
A spokesperson for the state Department of Human Services said in an email that the agency was working to speed up the system even more, after investing over $63 million since 2016, in part to add 175 more hospital beds, and also funding community treatment options. “We are not able to control the number of referrals we receive for competency restoration treatment,” wrote the spokesperson, Ali Fogarty. “We have been and remain committed to reducing the length of time that individuals in the criminal justice system wait for mental health and psychiatric treatment.”
But wait times are still too long, said Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU. And as the statewide legal battle plays on, families like Marcelline's are stuck in the middle. The ACLU is now pushing for a seven-day limit; federal courts have ruled that anything longer is a violation of rights. “Keeping them in jail is illegal. And from a health perspective, some of them could suffer irreparable harm,” Walczak said.
Legal battles have also been waged over wait times in Oregon, Colorado, Alabama, Louisiana, Nevada, Utah and Washington. Many states have struggled to comply with court rulings, some racking up millions of dollars in fines and investing millions to build beds to try to meet the need. Civil rights attorneys have filed numerous lawsuits trying to fix this problem by setting strict time limits. But without enforcement, states are routinely blowing past these deadlines.
Attorneys, forensic psychiatrists and hospital administrators say the real problem is a system that fails to distinguish between who needs to be in the justice system and who could be served in a cheaper community setting.
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