SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s system of handling mentally ill criminal defendants appears to be failing, a federal judge said in allowing a civil rights lawsuit to proceed against the state.
Because of a persistent backlog at the Utah State Hospital, people judged to be mentally incompetent to stand trail are stacked up in county jails awaiting treatment to restore their competency, the Disability Law Center said in a U.S. District Court suit filed in September 2015.
In a memorandum decision Tuesday, Judge Robert Shelby agreed to certify the case as a class action. He earlier dismissed a motion by the state that sought to have the case dismissed.
While state law sets out a process for treating suspects so their competence may be restored and they can go to trial, “This procedure does not appear to be working,” Shelby wrote.
Wait times have tripled in three years, increased to 180 days for a defendant to get into the State Hospital at Provo, the Disability Law Center said. Sometimes more than 50 such defendants are kept at county jails.
Some defendants awaiting treatment are being held “for periods longer than the period to which they would likely be sentenced if found guilty of the crime,” the suit said. “But none of these persons has been convicted of the crime for which they are being held. All are presumed innocent.”
Aaron Kinikini, attorney for the Disability Law Center, said Wednesday the solution might not be to add beds and staff at the State Hospital.
“There are some other models in other states where, through creativity, they have turned a portion of a jail into a hospital wing and are treating them there without hauling them to a completely different facility,” Kinikini said.
So Utah’s problem is one of “resources, and kind of a lack of imagination,” he said.
“As a society, we are beginning to recognize we have major problems in the criminal justice system,” Kinikini said. “The old model of just incarcerating people and talking about law and order has to give way to a more humanitarian and thoughtful approach.”
As of last week, 41 inmates judged mentally incompetent by Utah district judges were in county jails, including six in Weber County and one in Davis, Kinikini said.
In his ruling, Shelby noted that in 2014, the state began an outreach program in which State Hospital staff members periodically visit mentally incompetent defendants in county jails. He said 28 defendants have been restored to competency under the program, but added, “It is unclear at this early stage of the proceedings what in-jail treatment incompetent defendants receive.”
The state Human Services Department declined to comment Wednesday. Questions were referred to the Utah Attorney General’s Office, where spokesman Dan Burton said there would be no immediate comment.
The Disability Law Center’s suit said inmates with severe mental illness saddle jails with special discipline and management problems.
“To protect these vulnerable people from bullying and abuse, jail personnel frequently place them in protective custody or solitary confinement, which only serves to aggravate the inmates’ mental illness.” the suit said.
“For years, (the state) has failed to provide competency restoration treatment within a reasonable period of time from the date of the court order requiring treatment, as measured against nationally recognized standards,” the suit said.
The delays amount to an unconstitutional deprivation of defendants’ civil right to due process, said the suit, which asks for a federal order compelling the state to more rapidly get defendants into treatment.
Several Northern Utahns have been at the State Hospital for years and are still not judged competent to stand trial. They include Sun Cha Warhola, accused of strangling her two children to death in Layton in 2010.