Pa. treatment delays for defendants deemed incompetent to stand trial spurs ACLU suit

Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU Pennsylvania, says the new policy is not secure enough because corrections staff could potentially access mail. (AP file photo)

Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU Pennsylvania, says the new policy is not secure enough because corrections staff could potentially access mail. (AP file photo)

Hundreds of people with mental illness in Pennsylvania are locked away in county jails waiting for treatment at state hospitals.

On Thursday, the ACLU filed suit seeking class-action status against Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services, claiming it violates the due process rights of defendants who have been deemed mentally unfit to stand trial.

The typical case looks like this: Someone is arrested on criminal charges, and, following a mental evaluation, a court deems the defendant not competent to stand trial, saying the defendant needs treatment. If the treatment doesn’t restore a defendant’s competency, the charges are dismissed.

In Pennsylvania, though, hundreds are never making it to treatment, despite court orders. Instead, they’re languishing in county jails, the ACLU said in the suit. 

There are just two state-run treatment facilities for these types of defendants — one in Norristown and another, the Torrance State Hospital, near Pittsburgh.

“At this point, there are more people on the waiting list to get into those hospitals than they have actual bed space. Those numbers are increasing, which is why we’re seeing wait times get significantly longer very, very quickly,” said Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU Pennsylvania.

Federal courts have ruled that it shouldn’t take longer than a week for a defendant to be sent to a state hospital for “restorative” mental health treatment after it’s ordered by a judge.

But the ACLU said the average wait in Pennsylvania’s hospitals is 391 days. One defendant waited 589 days, according to the suit.

The state is so overwhelmed, Walczak said, that two defendants have died in county jails waiting for treatment. And some have sat in solitary confinement for up to a year waiting, according to the suit.

“I really think it is, to some extent, an indictment of the mental health safety net, which is really quite porous, and not adequate to address the problems,” Walczak said.

In some cases, Walczak said, mentally unwell defendants spend more time waiting in county jail for a treatment bed to open than they would if they’d been convicted of the criminal charge.

“No way they can fix this without a court order,” Walczak said. “You think Harrisburg is going to allocate the kind of resources they need? They probably need to build another forensic unit somewhere.”

Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services does not comment on pending litigation. 

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