After a lawsuit launched by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth has agreed to use more resources to house and treat criminal defendants with mental illnesses. ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director Vic Walczak led the legal battle and spoke to Essential Pittsburgh about the case.
“Sometimes, you just gotta sue ‘em,” Walczak said on the ACLU’s decision to take legal action.
Under federal law, criminal defendants are deemed incompetent if they do not understand the charges being brought against them and cannot help in their own defense. The law states that you cannot criminally prosecute an incompetent individual. However, if a court appointed psychiatrist believes the person can be rehabilitated they are put into what is known as competency restoration treatment.
Federal courts in other states have ruled the duration from when this treatment is ordered to the time a prisoner is transferred to a treatment facility should not exceed a week. In Pennsylvania, that time can range from 60 days to years, depending on if the trail is in the Western or Eastern part of the state respectively.
According to Walczak, this is a problem that has been building for years, but was made worse by previous gubernatorial administrations, which cut funding towards helping those with mental illnesses. As such, the issue has grown much larger than before. After the ACLU was contracted on numerous occasions of defendants being held for overly long periods of time, the organization decided to step in.
Walczak said the Commonwealth likely agreed to settle once it realized that it had “no defense” and it would be “clobbered” in the court room.
He further believes that, while the trial is over, this represents only a “strong first step” towards fixing the way people with mental illnesses are treated across the nation.
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