Thursday, July 05, 2007

Lawsuit moves forward to require quicker competency restoration

Attorney Beth Mitchell at Advocacy Inc. informs me that the disabilities rights group has decided to move forward with litigation to force the state to pay for reducing the the backlog of mentally ill and retarded defendants waiting for months in county jails who've been declared incompetent to stand trial.

Many including this writer hoped the Lege would fix the problem by budgeting new funds for "forensic beds" in state hospitals. The Texas Legislature approved millions in desperately needed new funding for outpatient treatment at Texas' MHMR "community centers," but only one of the 31 community centers (in Harris County) provides competency restoration services, and they've only recently begun doing so.

If other community centers followed suit it could reduce the problem dramatically - in Harris County after they began providing competency restoration services locally, the wait time for defendants to be declared competent to stand trial was lowered from 60 to 21 days.

However, new state funding did not come with any strings attached to require them to address the problem, and it's unrealistic to expect all 30 centers not currently providing such services to do so out of the goodness of their hearts. Advocacy really has no choice but to move forward with their lawsuit.

The Legislature's decision to ignore incompetent inmates languishing in county jails epitomizes Texas' penny wise and pound foolish approach to criminal justice. It's not like they didn't have plenty of warning about the problem. They did tweak competency restoration statutes in ways that will certainly help, but nobody thinks that without new funding it will resolve the problem.

The state has a constitutional duty to these defendants. Once a judge declares them incompetent, they aren't even allowed to plead guilty until they've been through the competency restoration process. Some misdemeanor defendants wait longer to be declared competent to stand trial than their maximum sentence would be upon conviction. I'll bet dollars to donuts Advocacy prevails in court. They've got a rock solid case and it will be heard before likely sympathetic Travis County judges. Then the state will have to pony up anyway, and likely also compensate those who've been harmed in the past by their recalcitrance.

Wouldn't it have been easier for the Legislature to just pay for the justice system it mandated up front?

See prior related Grits posts:

1 comment:

editor said...

What ever happened with this lawsuit? Shouldn't they look into judges who don't order the outpatient commitments? (or keep re-committing the defendants back over and over, thus "sentencing" them to serve their time in the hospital?) DSHS has no control over that.