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Decades-old Pennsylvania law is supposed to protect people with mental health problems from prosecution if they can’t understand the legal system and help defend themselves. A recent study found instead that the very system often puts them in jail.
6 months investigationPublished by Spotlight PA and Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
With no single state agency overseeing the competence system and no standardized method for documenting competency assessments and hearings, it is difficult to identify those who may be suffering in prison. In the absence of a statewide solution, some local government officials and agencies have come up with their own ways of dealing with the problem.
As part of the study, Spotlight PA and PINJ conducted an analysis of nearly 700 cases related to competency issues. The review found that non-violent misdemeanor or summary offenses, which are Pennsylvania’s most minor charges, were most frequently involved.
Experts echoed the finding, saying it would create a cycle of imprisonment. People with mental illness are often arrested for low-level crimes, can worsen while incarcerated, and are at higher risk of being arrested again upon release.
According to them, fixing the system involves preventing that cycle before it begins. In Lancaster, several police departments are trying to do just that.
“The problem was that the officers only had two tools: handcuffs and an ambulance,” said Elizabethtown Police Chief Ed Cunningham. “If you can’t put me in an ambulance, I have no choice but to take you to someone who can handcuff you.”
In the past, police officers serving people at risk have been forced to seek out people suffering from mental health or addiction problems before a judge who can order treatment. It is possible that he was engaged in a “reservation of mercy.”
Now in his jurisdiction, district attorneys, district judges, and departments have empowered officers to drop low-level charges.
Instead of arresting people in crisis, officers connect them to an on-call private crisis responder to help them understand what they need, Cunningham said. treatment facility.
But Elizabethtown’s program survives with a patchwork of support from Lancaster County, state and federal grants, and partnerships with local businesses, including local addiction recovery provider Blueprints.
“We are always looking for partners, a way to pay for this to be self-sustaining,” said Cunningham.
Attorneys across Pennsylvania told Spotlight PA and PINJ that the state’s competency system is so broken that it regularly circumvents it.
In Philadelphia, lawyers from the Philadelphia Advocate Association, a public agency that provides free legal counsel, do so because they have strong working relationships with the city’s district attorney, Norristown State Hospital, and the courts. can do.
These connections help them avoid trapping people in the criminal system for petty charges.
Greg Blender, who was the head of the company’s mental health division, recently represented a woman who was repeatedly arrested by police for trespassing a potentially serious crime.
“It sounds horrible, except the house was abandoned and rebuilt, and…it was her childhood home,” Blender said. I kept going back there because I believed I lived there.”
Instead of requesting a competence evaluation, the company worked with Philadelphia prosecutors to drop the charges. Options allowed by Blender may not work everywhere.
The Defender Association conducts training for public defenders in other counties, but without the same level of resources and relationships, replicating their system is difficult.
“They look at us like we have two heads. ‘That doesn’t work here,'” Blender said. “We hear it.”
In response to the Spotlight PA and PINJ investigations, prison leaders statewide say that while arrest and incarceration have become the de facto resource for people experiencing mental health crises, He said he was rarely able to provide adequate care when people arrived.
If a person’s mental health is interfering with their ability to stand trial, leaders may spend months waiting for one of the fewer than 400 state hospital beds designated for rehabilitation treatment. He said he could suffer for weeks, if not more.
In Allegheny County, where the problem is particularly acute, prisons and local human resources are planning to create a “mobility recovery and support team.”
The team provides treatment outside state hospitals, reducing the time people spend in prison for mental health issues.
The county issued a request for proposals in October and closed for submissions from interested contractors in December, but no bids were received, according to county spokesperson Amie Downs.
“They’re fixing it and will be issuing that corrected solicitation in the coming weeks,” said Downs.
According to the request for proposals, the new team will provide treatment in “the least restrictive care setting, focused on community-based interventions wherever possible.”
“A period of imprisonment is detrimental to the health and well-being of an individual,” the request for proposals read. “Severing critical links with communities, nature supports and service providers, periods of incarceration can lead to isolation, trauma and increased need for mental health.”
In other county prisons, officials addressing extended wait times at state hospitals have suggested in-prison clinics and treatment services.
York County last year approved a study investigating the feasibility of building rehabilitation clinics inside prisons. 1,000 daysAt a prison board meeting on March 13, York Prison Warden Adam Ogle said authorities were reviewing a draft feasibility study. According to York Dispatch.
In Beaver County, there was a similar problem of long waiting times, so prison officials took medical contractors to prison to restore their capacity.
But experts warn against solutions that rely on in-prison mental health care.
Nashville County Jail, Tennessee Established Behavioral Problem Center It is intended to treat incarcerated people who may have been charged with mental health problems. Christopher Slobogin, director of the criminal justice program at Vanderbilt Law School, said coaxing people into these beds is better than putting them in jail.
But Nashville facilities still rally people through the criminal system.
“It’s a criminal solution,” he said. “The civil solution is to have a communal medical center.
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https://www.spotlightpa.org/news/2023/03/pa-competency-local-solutions/ Local PA fixes to prevent mentally ill people from being locked up in prison Spotlight PA