State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

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ACLU back in court, says treatment wait for mentally ill inmates still too long

Written by Katie Meyer, Capitol Bureau Chief | Mar 19, 2019 2:15 PM
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In this Oct. 15, 2014 file photo, an inmate lies on a bunk reading in the psychiatric unit of the Pierce County Jail in Tacoma, Washington. In Pennsylvania, some inmates deemed mentally unfit for trial are housed in similar facilities for up to five months before being put in treatment. (Photo by AP)

 

(Harrisburg) -- The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is taking legal action over what it says is are unacceptably long wait times for mentally ill inmates in county prisons to get care.

It's not a new issue.

In fact, this is the ACLU's third time bringing the problem to federal court.

When people who commit crimes are found too mentally ill to stand trial, they're supposed to be placed in state care. The need varies based on their offense and their health--some go to secure, prison-like facilities while others can live more independently in community programs.

But in order to get there, they have to wait in jail.

The ACLU first sued the state Department of Human Services over long wait times in 2015, when they say some people deemed unfit for trial were stuck in county facilities for more than a year.

There was a settlement, but the group went back to court and settled again in 2017.

After the first settlement, the wait times "didn't get any better," ACLU Legal Director Vic Walczak said.

In the months after the second agreement with DHS, wait times went up for a period, but Walczak said things improved significantly after that, with the number of people on the waiting list dropping by about a hundred.

But then, he said, the department seemed to hit a plateau with wait times hovering around a four to five-month average.

The ACLU believes anything over a week is unconstitutional.

"We just got to a point where it got harder and harder to get meaningful responses back from DHS, and look, we've tried for more than nine months and that seemed like enough," Walczak said.

The ACLU is asking the federal court to order DHS to bring wait times down to a week by September 1.

DHS didn't respond to a request for comment.

In late January, the department told WITF there were 140 people on the waiting list to get into state facilities. A spokesperson said the average wait time was 11.55 days for people waiting to get into Torrance State Hospital, but 79.5 days for people on the list for the hospital at Norristown. 

Walczak said after the last settlement, DHS added beds in Norristown and in community programs.

In the past, the ACLU has structured its settlements to ask for specific numbers of new beds.

But now, Walczak said, "we're tired of doing that. We're just going to ask the court to order them to come into constitutional compliance and they're going to have to figure it out."

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