The Dallas News' Michael Grabell wrote an excellent story about the problem in yesterday's paper ("Mentally incompetent inmates stranded in jail," April 23), quoting Advocacy Inc. attorney Beth Mitchell who is suing the state to improve services:
"They don't have the money to build more beds and hire more staff in order to restore these people to competency," Ms. Mitchell said.Read the rest of the article for human examples and a good overview on this important and little-discussed topic. Last year the state said the waiting list was about 100, so either they were lowballing the figure then or the waiting list has grown since the Legislative Budget Board authorized emergency funds for competency restoration in 2006.
The state has 738 beds for mentally disabled inmates, which includes 343 for those arrested for violent offenses. As of the beginning of April, 217 inmates – including 175 considered violent – were on the waiting list.
For the 175, the average wait time is four months.
The nonprofit group, which filed the lawsuit last month in Austin federal court, said the cases of Dallas inmates Michael Fields and Ronald Crawford are typical of the troubled cycle that mentally ill and mentally retarded inmates fall into:
- A months-long wait for a hearing.
- A psychiatric ruling of incompetency.
- A months-long wait for a hospital bed.
- Treatment and a return to jail.
- A months-long wait for a trial.
- Deteriorating condition and another psychiatric ruling of incompetence.
- Back to the end of the waiting list.
Grabell didn't mention it, but there's legislation in play at the Texas Legislature aimed at reducing that waiting list, spurred on by Advocacy Inc.'s lawsuit. SB 867 by Lubbock Republican Robert Duncan would make several changes to streamline the process:
- Allow judges to use a previous competency evaluation if done less than a year prior.
- Require a competency report in 30 days for a felony and 10 days for a misdemeanor (judges can grant extensions).
- Allows release on personal or surety bond pending competency restoration.
- Requires bonding out incompetent misdemeanants to outpatient treatment programs.
- Disallows incarcerating incompetent defendants pretrial longer than their max sentence would be under law.
Here's another example where, with all respect to my friend Chairman Peña, I have to question the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee's priorities. Sen. Duncan's bill passed on the same Senate calendar as did Sen. Whitmire's SB 823 which expands police wiretapping authrority. Both cleared the Senate on April 12, but the Chair suspended the posting rules to put wiretapping on the very next (April 17) committee agenda.
Somebody tell me, please: Why should expanding wiretapping authority - a seldom used tool with important, controversial, and in this committee mostly ignored implications - merit a suspension of posting rules and a quick "yes" vote in the same meeting, when by comparison this bill, like the mentally incompetent inmates it seeks to protect, languishes? There's still plenty of time, but Peña and the Democrat-dominated committee should move with equal alacrity to hear and vote out this much more important bill so it can pass this session.
See prior, related Grits posts:
- 75-year old mentally incompetent grandmother stranded in Lufkin jail most of 2006
- Lawsuit could force Texas to treat mentally incompetent defendants
- Legislature should prioritize mental health funding that relieves local jails
- Chincy state hospital funding leaves mentally incompetent defendants stranded
- Unfunded mandate: Counties struggle to pay for mentally incompetent defendants' care
- More counties grumbling at backlog of incompetent defendants in county jails
- MH funding not enough, but better than a sharp stick in the eye