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ACLU Alleges Dept. Of Human Services Violates Rights Of Defendants With Mental Illness

Asylum Projects

Defendants ordered to receive treatment before they can stand trial are waiting up to a year to be admitted at one of the two state hospitals. 

A class-action lawsuit against the commonwealth from the American Civil Liberties Union's Pennsylvania office alleges that wait time is unconstitutional.

Torrance State Hospital near Pittsburgh and Norristown State Hospital near Philadelphia are perpetually full, often requiring defendants deemed unfit to stand trial sit in jail until vacancies arise.

The ACLU has filed lawsuits in several other states regarding long delays in psychiatric treatment, but the Pennsylvania branch said Pennsylvania has the nation's longest average waiting period.  

Kait Gillis, press secretary for the Department of Human Services, said while the office cannot comment on pending litigation, the incoming administration were warned of the “long-standing issues regarding the forensic services.”

“The department has been working with the courts and other stakeholders to improve services at our forensic units since that time,” she said.

When a person is charged with a crime and is found incompetent by a psychiatric professional to either understand the charges against them or are unable to help in their defense, judges often refer them to competency restoration treatment and their trial is put on hold. Treatment is often medication, group therapy and instruction in legal process.

Vic Walczak, Pennsylvania's ALCU legal director, said treatment is intended to restore those individuals to competency so they can stand trial on their charges. Long delays are counterproductive, he said.

“Many of them are de-compensating,” he said. “We provide examples of visible deteriorations. Sometimes these people are no longer able or willing to speak with their lawyers or family members, to the extent that they have any.”

Federal courts have determined a wait time of more than a week is unconstitutional.

The ACLU said patients committed in Philadelphia courts transferred to Norristown State Hospital this year waited an average of 397 days to get there. Five counties had at least one person waiting more than a year.

The lead plaintiff of the ACLU case was charged for stealing candy and violating his probation from a previous charge of less than $40 in retail theft. Walczak said the man, who goes by the initials J.H., is a chronically homeless man in his late-50s who was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“He has now been waiting 11 months to get into the state forensic hospital in Norristown -- all for stealing three peppermint patties -- but he’s been declared incompetent, so they can’t bring him to trial,” Walczak said.

The ACLU’s lawsuit alleges the Department of Human Services has violated the listed plantiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment right to due process, as well as their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act that call for timely treatment for mental health.

The organization filed a preliminary injunction asking for the Department of Human Services to find a temporary way to admit defendants within seven days.

Walczak said the ACLU hopes to have an emergency trial early next year to get those accommodations. To address the problem long-term, Walczak said he expects the state will need to add another facility.