Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Settlement Aims for Better Options for Mentally Ill Defendants

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Settlement Aims for Better Options for Mentally Ill Defendants

Article excerpt

Incompetent defendants who sometimes wait for months in jails on minor charges, and others stuck indefinitely in forensic mental hospitals, may move quickly toward trials or long-term homes under a lawsuit settlement approved Wednesday.

Philadelphia will get the first batch of new mental health "placements" -which could include secure homes in communities -but Allegheny County will later see some of the 120 units for incompetent defendants that the state Department of Human Services must develop under its settlement with plaintiffs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

A mentally ill person arrested for stealing three Peppermint Patties, as was one of the plaintiffs, "does not have to be sitting in a maximum security forensic hospital at $900 a day," said Witold "Vic" Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "It is a whole lot cheaper to provide him with the necessary support and care in the community than it is in a jail or mental hospital."

Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas said the settlement won't put violent defendants in communities, but will get some nonviolent people out of jammed mental hospitals by "making sure that they need to be in the forensic system, or they might be able to be served in another part of the system equally well or better."

When defendants are not competent to understand the charges against them or to help their defense lawyers, they must get competency treatment, which the state provides at Torrance State Hospital in Derry and Norristown State Hospital in Montgomery County. The ACLU and law firm Arnold & Porter, based in Washington, D.C., sued the department in October, claiming that incompetent defendants were languishing in jail awaiting transfers to the hospitals, while others sat in those hospitals for years. Some wait in solitary confinement in jails, and two people died awaiting transfer to the hospitals, according to the complaint. …

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