Monday, May 09, 2011

Competency restoration process sounds crazy to columnist

Rick Casey at the Houston Chronicle today describes a scenario familar to long-time Grits readers: Misdemeanor defendants waiting in jails and state mental hospitals for competency restoration longer than their maximum sentence would be if they were allowed to plead guilty. His column opened:
This is crazy. Did you know that a mentally ill person charged with a misdemeanor can spend months more in jail than a sane person charged with the same crime?

Here's how it works: If a prisoner appears unable to understand what is happening to him and to help his attorney in his defense, a judge needs to determine whether he is competent to stand trial.

It can take several weeks to get that proceeding, which can lead to an evaluation process that can take another 45 to 60 days.

If at that time the judge determines the person is not competent, the judge orders that the inmate be sent to the state hospital for therapy that will make him competent. But the limited number of hospital beds can mean a wait of as much as six months.

The state hospital routinely could take its limit of a full 120 days to treat the person. If the person is by that time competent, which is often the case, they can then go to trial or negotiate a plea bargain.

Many of these people are accused of Class B misdemeanors, which have a maximum sentence of 180 days. 

Yet by the time they come back for trial, they can easily have exceeded that period of time by weeks or months.
The article closes praising legislation by Will Hartnett in the House and Tommy Williams in the Senate - HB 2725 - which would count time on the waiting list for restoration services against the ultimate sentence, making it easier to get charges dismissed when time incarcerated reaches sentence length, capping "total incarceration — both in jail and the state hospital - at the maximum sentence for the alleged crime." With looming cuts to community based mental-health services in both the House and Senate budgets, there's going to be even more pressure on jails in the next two years to serve as the health provider of first resort for mentally-ill people.

The Hartnett/Williams legislation is the only significant bill providing jails any relief at all with low-level, incompetent inmates. Both the House and Senate budgets make cuts putting even greater pressure in the other direction. For that reason, to me this is almost must-pass legislation for Texas in 2011, though few outside sheriffs and county commissioners have paid much attention to the bill. Just a few years ago, Texas waiting lists for competency restoration reached crisis levels and they're pretty much back to that point now, even before the coming budget cuts. HB 2725 gives jails a release valve for less serious cases, but it doesn't resolve the underlying failure of the state to find the right mix of incarceration/institutionalization/community supervision, nor address mental illness in any but the most reactionary way, lurching from short-term crisis to crisis without an overall guiding vision for how all the pieces are supposed to work together. Such discussions, regrettably, are far from today's legislative debate. In the near term, passage of HB 2725 is the most that might happen to help on that score, and I'm sure counties would be glad for even that small measure of relief.

See prior, related Grits posts:

6 comments:

Robert Langham said...

That's nothing! In Smith County you can be locked up under excessive bail for YEARS waiting on a trial at which, if found guilty, you must be penalized with PROBATION!

This is called being "tuff on crime!" Prosecutors and judges LOVE it for the many plea bargains it produces.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Lanham is correct. Judge Skeen is the DA's office "go to" judge when they want excessive bail set. They then use it to exeert pressure for plea bargains. Skeen is a total scumbag who belongs in prison himeslf. There's a saying that the constitution doesn't apply in Smith County. That's absolutely correct.

gravyrug said...

Pre-trial detention, whether competency restoration or waiting for bail, should count towards one's sentence except in special cases (such as being a known and provable flight risk).

Anonymous said...

What am I missing? Art. 46B.0095 already caps the period at the maximum for the offense (except if the defendant is in outpatient treatment and the charge is a misdemeanor). What's the difference?

Art. 46B.0095. MAXIMUM PERIOD OF FACILITY COMMITMENT OR OUTPATIENT TREATMENT PROGRAM PARTICIPATION DETERMINED BY MAXIMUM TERM FOR OFFENSE. (a) A defendant may not, under this chapter, be committed to a mental hospital or other inpatient or residential facility, ordered to participate in an outpatient treatment program, or subjected to both inpatient and outpatient treatment for a cumulative period that exceeds the maximum term provided by law for the offense for which the defendant was to be tried, except that if the defendant is charged with a misdemeanor and has been ordered only to participate in an outpatient treatment program under Subchapter D or E, the maximum period of restoration is two years beginning on the date of the initial order for outpatient treatment program participation was entered.(b) On expiration of the maximum restoration period under Subsection (a), the defendant may be confined for an additional period in a mental hospital or other inpatient or residential facility or ordered to participate for an additional period in an outpatient treatment program, as appropriate, only pursuant to civil commitment proceedings.

KBCraig said...

Anonymous, what you're missing is that your cite only applies to judicial commitments. Pre-trial detention, even if it's in a mental hospital, is wide open.

voice4voiceless said...

Recently I had an eye and heart opening opportunity to meet some PEOPLE LIVING this INAPPROPRIATE and INCOMPREHENSIBLE way of life in a state forensic hospital. Theirs rights are being violated and I am sickened and saddened. They do not have a voice to speak out. I cannot keep this experience silent. Most have no idea how long they will be there, most have the idea they will be there for many, many years. I have the feeling most have been there way beyond their maximum period--trapped as a result an ignorance and fearful system blocking change. These are NOT violent crime offenders, they are mostly MISDEMEANORS!! These PEOPLE are as competent and intellectual as I am, if not more. I am out I am living a free, full life with a mental illness. I am am stabilized and I have the motivation and hope of a happy and healthy future. They do not.!! Most are stabilized and stuck with a system that keeps them stuck in their recovery.
I am ashamed to be a Texan!! Our state is one of the lowest when it comes to mental health assistance. Assistance that WORKS, that is. Something must be done to allow them to live the life of which they are capable and deserving. How many people do you know that are depressed, suicidal, have mood swings, delusions of grandeur, overwhelmed...? Most of us do at times, some seek help, some deny help, some are denied services. some are put on a waiting list. THIS DESERVES THE AWARENESS IT DESERVES.