People charged with crimes who suffer from mental illness are expected to get treatment faster and avoid drawn-out court cases after a settlement was reached this week between an activist legal group and the state of Utah over a 2015 lawsuit alleging mentally inmates waited months and were deprived of their right to speedy trials.
The Disability Law Center and the Utah Department of Human Services came to an agreement Monday on a lawsuit filed two years ago, local media reported. The lawsuit said that inmates with mental illnesses are waiting in jail for an average of three to six months without treatment. Those are considered long wait times compared with the wait times in other Western states, reports said.
"Due to a lack of funding in the Utah State Hospital system, people charged, but not convicted of crimes, too ill to proceed to trial, waited for months on end in our state's county jails after being court ordered into treatment to restore their competence," Disability Law Center Legal Director Aaron Kinikini said in a statement. "... Some have died while waiting."
Under the settlement, the state would be required to reduce wait times for forensic treatment for people found incompetent to 60 days within six months of court approval of the settlement. After a year, the required wait time would go down to 30 days and after 18 months, it would go down to 14 days.
The state would also be required to invest in solutions to the waitlist and improve its treatment system for forensic patients. The agreement also outlines plans for Utah State Hospital to create and operate a $3 million jail-based unit in Salt Lake County.
The department currently has a community-based Outreach Program that started in 2016 and treats low-risk mental patients at jails or in the community. Human Services Executive Director Ann Silverberg Williamson said it helps save beds at the state hospital.
"The complexity of solutions to overcome mental health suffering cannot be overstated," Williamson said. "The greatest help begins when these individuals are not stigmatized and receive professional help through local services before escalating to involvement in matters of personal safety and community safety."
The settlement awaits federal court approval.