Thursday, February 15, 2007

Lawsuit could force Texas to treat mentally incompetent defendants

A lawsuit by Advocacy Inc. in an Austin court may finally force Texas to address the problem of mentally ill defendants who've been declared "incompetent" sitting around in county jails for months awaiting mental health services, the Austin Statesman's Andrea Ball reported this morning ("Mentally ill in jail too long, lawsuit charges," 2-15).

(UPDATE: Here's a copy of the original filed petition, and another article from the SA Express News.)

I'm glad to see that - it's about time, IMO. I'm also proud to mention that this blog played a small role in Advocacy Inc. getting involved. Ball gave a good backgrounder on the subject:
The lawsuit from Austin nonprofit group Advocacy Inc. says about 100 defendants with mental illnesses across the state have been declared incompetent to stand trial but are awaiting admission to a state psychiatric hospital.

That delay clogs local jails, slows the legal system and violates inmates' right to due process, said Beth Mitchell of Advocacy Inc.

Advocacy wants a Travis County court-at-law judge to force the state to take custody of the inmates and help them become competent to stand trial by sending them to a state hospital or a community treatment program.

"They can't just hold these people indefinitely," Mitchell said.

Officials from the Texas Department of State Health Services, which runs the state psychiatric hospitals and is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, did not immediately have a comment Wednesday.

The lawsuit comes as state psychiatric hospitals struggle to deal with a growing number of "forensic patients."

Accused of offenses that range from public intoxication to murder, the patients are considered incompetent to stand trial, so they remain in the hospital until they are able to participate in their defense.

Even though the number of forensic beds statewide grew from 399 in 2001 to 738 in 2006, there are not enough for everyone, the lawsuit says. So, until hospital beds are available, defendants sit in local jails.
I hope this lawsuit finally brings this subject to a head. I know of one case where a defendant waited in this legal limbo more than six months. The Legislature could solve the problem, and should, by just ponying up for more "forensic beds." Sorry guys, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but when you establish laws that strip people of their rights, you then must pay for the process that allows them to be regained - that can't just be the end result!

Some mental health advocates, believe it or not, don't want to include funding for incompetent defendants in a big funding package for improving state mental health services. The reason: There is a bias among advocates - for the most part a justified one - toward de-institutionalization and enhancing "community-based" mental health services instead of hospitals. I understand that, and I agree it would be better if Texas community MHMR centers could provide competency restoration services. But right now, only the one in Houston does, and you can't just leave these people laying around in jail indefinitely until the mental health system gets its act together.

This lawsuit reminds the state, and hopefully legislative budget writers, that no advocacy group's political agenda nor any philosophical dispute over funding strategies gets to override defendants' constitutional rights - even, perhaps especially, defendants who've been declared mentally incompetent by a court. Then, IMO, the state assumes responsibility for that defendant, and has an obligation to provide the mental health treatment a judge said is required before the defendant can knowledgably assist in their own defense.

Good luck to Advocacy Inc. on the case. I hope the Lege ponies up and just makes your lawsuit unnecessary. In the meantime, see prior Grits coverage of this topic:


123txpublicdefender123 said...

It's about damn time!

editor said...

Well, there's about 260 on the waiting list right now, almost 3 years later. Still, long waits. Instead of fully funding outpatient competency restoration, the lege decided to use the good ole boy system and fund a private prison firm (that has a long record of human rights violations) to build a forensic hospital. Do we yet know who's budget will pay for admissions? At present, the funds come out of "trust funds" set up by DSHS for local mental health centers. 46B states that the local mental health center decides the most appropriate place for treatment (the judge's failed to read that part).