HARRISBURG – Individuals who are not competent to stand trial on criminal charges due to severe mental illness continue to sit in Pennsylvania’s jails for extremely long periods of time, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania charged in a new court filing today. The complaint is in response to the commonwealth’s failure to implement the terms of a settlement of a class-action lawsuit that was first brought in October 2015 and settled in January 2016.

The new complaint filed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the law firm of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer states that the waiting list for inmates who need in-patient mental health treatment has, in fact, grown since the settlement and the wait times for moving them from county jails to treatment facilities has not decreased. Many persons with mental illness are staying in jails for over a year awaiting space in a mental health facility.  The plaintiffs’ attorneys believe Pennsylvania’s wait times for transfers are the longest in the country.

“Every day, the commonwealth is violating the constitutional rights of people who need treatment but instead are sitting in jails, where they are vulnerable to further deterioration, isolation, and abuse by other inmates,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.  

When the plaintiffs and the state Department of Human Services (DHS) reached agreement in January 2016, there were 215 people on the wait list to be transferred to Norristown State Hospital (NSH) or Torrance State Hospital (TSH). As of April 28, that list had grown to 258 people. While DHS was supposed to open an additional 120 beds for people in these circumstances, the failure to reduce the number of people awaiting beds demonstrates the clear need for more space.

Long wait times for transfers from jails to treatment facilities also continue. At the time of the settlement, the average length of time for a transfer to NSH was 261 days. After the settlement, the commonwealth started a process to expedite inmates with severe illness. But those persons not deemed severely in need but who are also not competent to stand trial are now waiting more than a year to be transferred to NSH.  Of patients accepted into hospitals this year, one waited in jail for 634 days and another 788 days – over two years -- for a transfer.

Meanwhile, the situation at Torrance State Hospital, which serves patients in the western two thirds of the state, is marginally better but still unacceptable and has deteriorated. In January 2016, the average wait for a transfer from jail to TSH was 79 days. By November 2016, that delay had risen to an average of 105 days.

“Our clients are largely helpless and forgotten, and without further court intervention they will continue to be held in jails against their constitutional rights,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “These are very sick people who need healthcare, and courts have been clear that they cannot remain in jail.”

Federal courts across the country have deemed that an inmate who is not competent should not stay in jail more than seven days, and the plaintiffs in this case asked for a seven-day requirement to transfer inmates to treatment facilities. In settling this lawsuit, the commonwealth agreed that any jail time beyond 60 days is unconstitutional. But the wait times persist. 

In today’s filing, the plaintiffs are asking the court to implement a seven-day maximum waiting period for transfer to treatment, to require the commonwealth to open 100 additional beds in the next six months, and to order DHS to hire a consulting firm to assess people on the waiting list and to create a strategy for reducing wait times.

“We didn’t want to go back to court,” said David Gersch, the lead attorney for Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer. “But the commonwealth’s inability to implement the terms of the settlement have forced our hand. Our clients need help. And their prolonged stays in county jails are indefensible.”

More information, including the new filing, is available at aclupa.org/dallas.