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Utah Settles Federal Suit Alleging Delays in Competency Treatment for Pre-trial Detainees

by Derek Gilna

On June 14, 2017, Utah officials entered into a settlement to resolve a federal class-action lawsuit that alleged the state failed to provide timely and proper mental health competency evaluations and treatment to pre-trial detainees. According to the complaint, filed in 2015 by the Disability Law Center under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Utah State Hospital (USH) violated both the Fourteenth Amendment and Article I, Section 7 of Utah’s state constitution by failing to provide mental health treatment to ensure defendants were competent to stand trial.

This was a significant issue because the lack of timely treatment meant pre-trial detainees with mental competency issues faced undue delays in having their day in court.

According to the complaint, “For years, Defendant USH has failed to provide competency restoration treatment within a reasonable period of time from the date of the court order requiring treatment, as measured against nationally-recognized standards. Individuals who are adjudged incompetent are placed on a waiting list for months, during which they remain confined in a municipal or county jail until a bed at Defendant USH’s Forensic Facility becomes available.”

Additionally, the lawsuit stated, “It is not uncommon for these individuals to wait in jail for six months or more after issuance of the order committing them for treatment until Defendant USH accepts custody. In fact, in some cases these individuals with mental illness are held in jail pending treatment for periods longer than the period to which they would likely be sentenced if found guilty of the crime. But none of these persons has been convicted of the crime for which they are being held. All are presumed innocent.”

Pre-trial detainees denied timely admittance to the state’s competency restoration program “must languish in Utah’s county jails without appropriate mental health treatment until a forensic bed becomes available at ... USH. Jails are not intended to be, or operated as, therapeutic facilities; they are, by design, punitive in nature,” the complaint noted.

The settlement will change all of this, both parties agreed.

“People will get in sooner,” said Doug Thomas, director of the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.

“We’ve seen several members of our class over the last several years deteriorate, some have committed suicide. It’s been kind of a horror show,” added Aaron Kinikini, the Disability Law Center’s legal director.

According to the settlement, Kinikini said, all timelines for providing competency treatment will be shortened. Within the first six months, the waiting period will be only 60 days. In twelve months it should be 30 days and within 18 months it should drop to two weeks. The agreement also included a program called “A Strategic Plan for Providing Utah Adult Mental Health Competence Restoration Services,” which sets forth the reduction in times for treatment and makes further changes to ensure prompt screening and identification of class members with mental illness so they can receive prompt treatment. Initial competency screenings by a forensic evaluator who can make treatment recommendations would take place within 72 hours after an individual’s arrest.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Shelby, who will retain jurisdiction over the terms of the settlement, had previously been critical of the state’s procedures with respect to competency hearings, stating, “Here, over 50 incompetent criminal defendants were on USH’s wait list in late July 2015, while 39 were on the wait list in early June 2016. The proposed class also includes future criminal defendants who are declared incompetent, but remain housed in a county jail after being placed in the custody of DHS’s director or a designee to receive restorative treatment.”

Final approval of the settlement was granted by the district court on July 11, 2017. See: Disability Law Center v. State of Utah, U.S.D.C. (D. Utah), Case No. 2:15-cv-00645-RJS.  

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Related legal case

Disability Law Center v. State of Utah