HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania is failing its agreement to ensure mentally ill defendants avoid long stays in jail before they are transferred to a treatment unit, civil rights lawyers said in a Thursday court filing that asked a federal judge to end what they described as daily violations of constitutional rights.
In the filing, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer law firm in Washington, D.C., said they believe waits in Pennsylvania, sometimes exceeding a year in jail, are likely the longest in the nation for mentally defendants. They also are far longer than the constitutional limit of seven days identified by federal courts in other states.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services is “foot-dragging” on commitments it made more than a year ago to settle a 2015 lawsuit, the lawyers wrote.
They asked U.S. District Judge Sylvia H. Rambo to order wait times reduced to no more than seven days and the creation of 100 more treatment beds within six months.
“There has been enough waiting,” the lawyers wrote. “More beds are needed now.”
The department declined Thursday to respond to allegations in the court filing. It will have 10 days to respond in court, Rambo’s office said.
The state, however, insisted it had worked to improve the state’s system to treat mentally ill defendants, including, spending about $18 million on 149 treatment unit beds since its January 2016 settlement.
It also said it has worked to get — and keep — the mentally ill out of county jails, in favor of alternative treatment programs, and hired consultants to study how to speed up the cases of defendants determined to be incompetent to stand trial.
Its commitments in the 2016 settlement included coming up with a plan to reduce the jail waits of defendants who are deemed too mentally ill to stand trial and to determine the most appropriate treatment setting for each of them.
But the department has done neither while failing to create enough new treatment beds, the civil rights lawyers said.
“Pennsylvania’s wait times are off the charts,” said Witold J. Walczak, the legal director of the ACLU’s Pennsylvania chapter. “To have this number of people languishing in jails and in solitary confinement without any treatment is just appalling.”
Some mentally ill defendants have waited more than a year from the court’s commitment order to leave jail for a state hospital, the civil rights lawyers say, and the number of people awaiting transfer has risen to 258 from 215 at the time of the 2016 settlement. For some accused of petty crimes, their waits in jail are longer than a guilty verdict would have required, the lawyers have said.
The waits also likely mean a mentally ill defendant’s condition will deteriorate, undermining efforts by doctors to restore their competency to stand trial, the filing said.
While the state has sought to quickly transfer the sickest defendants, waits of more than 100 days remain routine, according to the lawsuit. Of those transferred this year, 19 waited longer than a year, and two waited longer than two years, it said.
Defendants on the list to be transferred to a state hospital in eastern Pennsylvania were waiting an average of 175 days, according to the state’s November data cited by the lawsuit. That had fallen from 261 days at the time of the agreement. The average time to be transferred to a state hospital in western Pennsylvania rose, however, from 79 days to 105 days, the lawsuit said.
Waiting times to get into a state hospital started mounting in 2012, plaintiffs’ lawyers have said.
This story has been corrected to show the reference to the nation’s longest waits in jail is based on waits exceeding a year, not an average of 100 days.