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DHS Settles Lawsuit Over Delayed Treatment of Mentally Ill Defendants

Some defendants have waited more than a year in jail for court ordered treatment. (Jumilla/
Some defendants have waited more than a year in jail for court ordered treatment. (Jumilla/
January 28, 2016

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Pennsylvania has agreed to make sweeping changes in the delivery of mental health services to mentally ill persons facing criminal charges.

The agreement, approved Wednesday, settles a federal class action lawsuit filed last October on behalf of hundreds of criminal defendants who often spend months in jail waiting to receive court ordered treatment.

Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, calls the settlement an important first step in addressing those delays.

"The Commonwealth has really stepped up and made a very important commitment to add a significant number or resources into the mental health system across the entire spectrum of care," he states.

The settlement will affect people ordered by a court to undergo treatment to restore their mental competence prior to standing trial.

There are currently 220 mentally ill people waiting in jail for the 190 treatment slots in two state hospitals.

Walczak says under the agreement the state will add at least 170 placement opportunities for individuals who need treatment.

"Most of these places are going to be in the community for people who do not need a secure unit,” he points out. “They'll just be in the community like our lead client who's in jail for stealing three peppermint candies."

The goal is to get the time spent in jail prior to getting treatment down to seven days within the next year.

Within the first 90 days, the state will provide $1 million to create supportive housing in Philadelphia.

And Walczak says the state will be taking other steps to minimize the number of people being referred into the system.

"And that could include things like trying to convince prosecutors that those folks, to the extent they need mental health care, should go directly into the mental health system and not the criminal justice system," he explains.

Federal courts have ruled that delays of more than seven days between a court's commitment order and hospitalization are unconstitutional.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA