J.H. v. Dallas

Hundreds of people with severe mental illness languishing in Pennsylvania’s county jails, often in solitary confinement, for months and even years awaiting court-ordered mental health services known as competency restoration treatment

Attorneys/Firms: David P. Gersch, Stephen E. Fenn, Victoria Killion, & Nicole B. Neuman (Arnold & Porter LLP); Witold Walczak & Paloma Wu (ACLU-PA)

On October 22, 2015, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the Washington D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of people with severe mental illness who have been languishing in Pennsylvania’s county jails, often in solitary confinement, for months and even years awaiting court-ordered mental health services known as competency restoration treatment.

In a criminal case, when an individual with mental illness is incapable of assisting in his own defense, a judge orders competency restoration treatment, which takes place at one of only two state forensic hospitals. If a defendant’s competency is restored, his criminal cases may proceed; if it is not restored, the criminal charges are dismissed and the person must be released or, if she is a danger to self or others, civilly committed.

Federal courts have found that delays of longer than seven days between a court’s commitment order and hospitalization for treatment are unconstitutional. Pennsylvania appears to have the longest wait times in the nation, especially for the eastern part of the state. For instance, the wait times for patients committed by Philadelphia courts to the state forensic hospital in Norristown have averaged 397 days for individuals transferred this year, with some people waiting as long as 589 days. In some cases, they spend more time waiting in the county jail for a forensic bed than they would have if they’d been convicted of the underlying crime.

On Wednesday, January 27, 2016, the ACLU-PA and the Dept. of Human services announced the details of a settlement agreement.

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