HARRISBURG - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania returned to federal court today in a new filing against the state Department of Human Services (DHS), more than three years after first bringing a lawsuit on behalf of people who have been found too mentally ill to stand trial but who are housed in jails instead of healthcare facilities. The new complaint argues that DHS’s implementation of previous settlements in the case has failed to produce constitutionally acceptable results, with some patients remaining in jails for months at a time.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania and the law firm Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP first filed the class action lawsuit in 2015, when some people who were found incompetent to stand trial were spending a year or more in jails before being transferred to hospitals. After two settlement agreements resolved the plaintiffs’ prior injunction motions, the wait times for hospital beds have decreased, but many patients are still waiting four months or more in jails for treatment.
“Our clients are severely mentally ill, and they desperately need treatment, not prison,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Every day beyond a one-week wait is too long under the Constitution. The situation remains dire and we’ve concluded that we need a new federal court order to compel DHS to fix the problem once and for all.”
The motion filed today argues that any wait in jail beyond seven days is unconstitutional, as other federal courts have found. In a previously negotiated settlement, the commonwealth acknowledged that it is unconstitutional to hold a person who is incompetent to stand trial in jail for 60 days. As of March 8, 45 people who are on the wait list for a hospital bed had been waiting more than 60 days. One person had been waiting 297 days.
The complaint also describes months of negotiation with the administration that suddenly stopped in recent weeks.
“We’ve given the commonwealth every opportunity to get this right,” said David Gersch of Arnold & Porter. “They’ve improved, but they’re still far short of where the constitution requires them to be.”
Today’s motion asks federal district court Judge Sylvia Rambo to issue a preliminary injunction finding that the commonwealth is in violation of the plaintiffs’ right to due process and right to be free of improper detention. The plaintiffs have asked the court to order the commonwealth to reduce wait times to seven days by September 1.
“Time is up,” said Walczak. “Three and a half years of settlements and working together have failed to fix this problem. Now we need the court to set clear and enforceable time limits.”