ACLU, state Human Services reach settlement on mentally ill defendants awaiting trial

Bars of a prison cell.

A last-minute settlement between the American Civil Liberties Union and the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services is the first step in unclogging the flow of people moving between Pennsylvania’s judicial and mental health systems.

The day that an October lawsuit was meant to go to court, federal Judge Sylvia Rambo signed off on a settlement between the ACLU and the state Department of Human Services (DHS) regarding people with severe mental illnesses waiting in jail for court-ordered mental health services.

Under the terms of the settlement, DHS will allocate a total of 170 beds and $1 million to Pennsylvania’s mental health facilities, where representatives from both parties say there isn’t enough room to quickly give patients the necessary care.

DHS and the ACLU were not able to reach an agreement on a maximum wait time for people who are waiting for hospital admission, but have 90 days to do so before a judge will decide on a time limit.

The lawsuit alleged that people with mental illnesses were “languishing” in jails awaiting competency restoration treatment, a combination of education and mental health care to ensure that a defendant is capable of standing trial.

“DHS’ failure to allocate sufficient resources... has resulted in what are believed to be the longest delays in the country, causing very sick people to spend time in jail,” the lawsuit reads.

When the court refers patients to the state agency’s two mental health facilities — Norristown State Hospital and Torrance State Hospital — federal courts have ruled that more than a seven-day wait is unconstitutional, according to the suit.

Of the 25 Philadelphia patients represented in the suit, the average wait time — or the time the patients spent in jail, some in solitary confinement — was 391 days. The maximum wait time, according to the lawsuit, was 589 days.

ACLU Legal Director Witold Walczak said in a press conference Tuesday that the settlement is focused on two types of cases: people waiting in jails to get into treatment and people who have gotten into treatment and are still not deemed competent. As for the latter, people need to be civilly committed or released.

“[Both of these issues] are based on the same problem,” Walczak said, “every bed, every space across the mental health system is full.”  

Under the terms of the settlement, DHS has 120 days to place 60 new beds somewhere in Philadelphia. Thirty of those beds will be in a residential treatment facility, according to Walczak, and 30 will go to the Norristown campus.

Within 180 days, DHS is required to create 60 more beds; some are supposed to go to Allegheny County while others will go to counties surrounding Philadelphia. The settlement also gives DHS 90 days to allocate $1 million to supported housing opportunities in Philadelphia.  

Where exactly the beds will go has not been determined, Walczak said, because the ACLU and the DHS are still examining the scope of the problem.

“When we talk placement, it truly is opening up a bed somewhere in that continuum of mental health care,” Walczak said. “[We] have not dictated where those beds have to be opened up.”  

In a press release, DHS Secretary Ted Dallas said the agreement will improve all sectors of the court system for defendants with mental illnesses.

“A well-functioning forensic mental health system is not only a critical part of a well-functioning human services system, but also of a well-functioning criminal justice system,” Dallas said. “Today’s agreement will...make it easier for all of those involved to achieve the best possible result for the individuals they serve.”

PublicSource reached out to the department’s press office after the 10:30 a.m. press conference and is expecting further comment from DHS spokeswoman Kait Gillis by the end of the day.

The ACLU worked with mental health expert Dr. Joel Dvoskin on deciding the appropriate ways to address overcapacity in the mental health system. It also partnered with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to helping in-need criminal defendants.

Luna Patella, chief of the Defender Association’s mental health unit, said she has seen the wait times for mentally ill defendants awaiting trial grow exponentially in the last 15 years.

“Me and my staff have seen it on a day-to-day basis,” Patella said. “[The settlement is] a glimmer of hope that we can actually re-route mental health patients away from incarceration.”  

Reach PublicSource intern Elizabeth Lepro at liz.lepro@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @LeproLiz.