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Lawsuit Exposes Jail Limbo for Mentally Incompetent Defendants in Texas

by Matt Clarke

According to a lawsuit filed by a non-profit group, Texas is facing a shortage of mental hospital beds that leaves hundreds of mentally-incompetent criminal defendants stranded in jails awaiting treatment.

Texas has a total of 738 mental hospital beds designated for mentally ill jail prisoners, including 343 beds for defendants arrested for violent crimes. As of April 1, 2007 there were 217 prisoners on the waiting list for mental hospital beds, with 175 considered violent.

The average waiting period for prisoners on the list is four months. This lengthy delay, in addition to a months-long wait for a competency hearing, has created a cycle of treatment and deterioration. The cycle includes prisoners waiting for a hearing, being ruled incompetent, getting no treatment while waiting for a hospital bed, receiving treatment at a mental hospital, being returned to jail for another competency hearing, decompensating and getting no treatment while waiting months for the hearing, being ruled incompetent again, getting worse while waiting for another mental hospital bed, ad infinitum.

In February 2007, Advocacy Inc., a non-profit disabilities rights group, filed suit on behalf of Michael Fields and Ronald Crawford, two mentally-incompetent jail prisoners. Fields had twice gone through the cycle of competency ruling, deterioration, treatment and decompensation while awaiting another hearing. Fields, who has an IQ of 45, likely didn?t know what he was doing when he allegedly assisted another man in an armed robbery; he is at risk in the county jail of other prisoners stealing his property and taking advantage of him.

Crawford, who says he receives messages from the devil and through the television, is accused of punching a cop who tried to stop him from cursing at Wal-Mart customers. He has been waiting for months to be sent to the North Texas State Hospital for treatment.

According to Dallas County Budget Director Ryan Brown, the problem of mentally ill prisoners languishing in the jail was discovered during a review by a criminal justice director who was hired to address jail overcrowding. Brown has gained the County Commissioners? approval for a plan to speed up and monitor competency cases ? the plan calls for hiring a case manager, prosecutor and public defender to identify prisoners with mental health problems and assign their competency hearings a high priority. Brown says the plan is projected to save the county over $467,000 a year.

?It does nobody any good for them to be decompensating and becoming incompetent again and then getting in line to go back [for more treatment],? Brown noted.

Unfortunately, even if the plan works it will only affect one county. Further, it does nothing to increase the number of treatment beds available to mentally ill prisoners. It will thus only serve to put Dallas County prisoners closer to the front of a long line caused by a lack of mental hospital beds and other mental health treatment options.

Better solutions were included in a bill passed by Texas lawmakers that became effective on September 1, 2007. The legislation, S.B. 867, streamlines the process for mentally-incompetent prisoners to get the treatment they need. The newly-enacted law allows judges to use a previous competency evaluation if done within the past year, rather than having to order another hearing; sets time limits for competency reports; allows mentally ill prisoners to be released on personal or surety bonds; and prohibits mentally-incompetent prisoners from being held in jail longer than the maximum sentence they could receive if they were convicted.

If the Dallas County plan and the new statutory provisions fail to solve the problems faced by mentally ill prisoners in Texas jails, the Advocacy Inc. lawsuit is still ongoing. The suit survived a jurisdictional challenge and is pending an interlocutory appeal. See: Fields v. Lakey, Travis County District Court (Austin, TX), Case No. C-1-CV-07-001182.

Additional Sources: Dallas Morning News,

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Related legal case

Fields v. Lakey