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ACLU sues Pa. over delays in treating defendants deemed incompetent

Criminal defendants found incompetent to stand trial in Pennsylvania courts are supposed to be sent to a state hospital for "competency restoration treatment."

Criminal defendants found incompetent to stand trial in Pennsylvania courts are supposed to be sent to a state hospital for "competency restoration treatment."

Federal courts have ruled that a wait of more than seven days for hospitalization is unconstitutional, according to the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Instead, patients are waiting in county jails for months, and sometimes a year or more, according to a federal lawsuit filed against state officials Thursday by the ACLU.

One patient from Philadelphia waited 589 days for treatment, according to the suit.

At least two people have died in jail - one killed by his cellmate in April - while waiting to be transferred, the suit says.

"These are the forgotten among the forgotten," said Witold Walczak, an ACLU attorney based in Pittsburgh.

Only Norristown State Hospital and a state hospital in Western Pennsylvania are licensed to provide competency restoration treatment.

Those hospitals are woefully short on available beds, according to the suit, filed in federal court in Harrisburg. The waiting lists for admission to a forensic hospital bed have grown to about 200 patients, the suit says.

People declared incompetent may suffer from intellectual and cognitive disabilities, mental illness, or traumatic brain injury, the suit says.

The situation in Pennsylvania "has resulted in what are believed to be the longest delays in the country, causing very sick people to spend time in jail, often in extended solitary confinement, making them even sicker," the suit says.

And some people have spent more time behind bars than they would have if they had been found guilty, according to the suit.

An incompetency ruling stays criminal proceedings. A successful competency restoration treatment can lead to reinstatement of criminal charges.

Walczak described competency restoration treatment as a combination of medication, individual and group therapy, and instruction on how the court system works. It can last for months, until a determination on the patient can be made, Walczak said.

Named as defendants in the suit are Theodore Dallas, secretary of the Department of Human Services, and the top administrators at Norristown and Torrance State Hospital in Westmoreland County.

Reached for comment, Kait Gillis, press secretary for the Department of Human Services, responded, "When the [Wolf] administration came into office, in January, we became aware of the long-standing issues regarding forensic services.

"While we cannot comment on pending litigation, the department has been working with the courts and other stakeholders to improve services at our forensic units since that time," Gillis said.

Joining the Pennsylvania ACLU in the legal fight is the Washington law firm Arnold & Porter, which helped the ACLU defeat Pennsylvania's voter-ID law in 2014.

The suit is seeking class-action status on behalf of people waiting for hospital beds.

The Pennsylvania ACLU also is suing on behalf of patients who have received treatment at the hospitals but who are kept there because they are not making progress. Many of these people "now wait years" to be transferred from the hospitals to community-based placement, the suit said.

One patient from Philadelphia was on a waiting list for 1,175 days to get out of the hospital.

"Basically, the entire system is gridlocked," Walczak said.

The plight of the patients who languish behind bars is illustrated in the lawsuit with the stories of multiple plaintiffs.

One is a chronically homeless man in Philadelphia, identified as J.H., who suffers from schizophrenia, according to the suit. He has had repeated run-ins with the law, mainly for stealing food and personal-care items from stores.

Since 2012, J.H. has been twice declared incompetent to stand trial for retail theft, including for one incident in which he allegedly stole three Peppermint Pattie chocolates.

With the exception of several weeks in 2014 when he was sent back to a community facility in Philadelphia, J.H. has remained in custody - waiting for treatment, receiving treatment that doctors had concluded was not working, and now again waiting for treatment.

The suit alleges that the plaintiffs' rights are being violated under the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act.

215-854-5983 @RobertMoran215