Utah sued over wait times for competency restoration services

Empty Jail Cell
News from Utah

The state of Utah is failing to provide court-ordered competency restoration services in a reasonably timely manner for criminal defendants unable to stand trial, according to a class-action lawsuit filed September 8 by the Disability Law Center and Snell and Wilmer LLP.

“For defendants with mental illness stuck in this jail ‘limbo,’ these long delays result in needless suffering, including steadily worsening symptoms, self-mutiliation, suicide attempts, and prolonged detention in solitary confinement,” DLC Legal Director Aaron Kinkini said in a news release [PDF]. “The DLC and the other plaintiffs allege that warehousing these very ill people in jail when they have not been convicted of any crime, and are legally unable to stand trial for a crime, is both cruel and unconstitutional.”

Under Utah State law, a criminal defendant unable to stand trial must be transferred to the Utah State Hospital for competency services, and, if possible, restored to competency.

Since 2013, the number of individuals on the wait list for these services has nearly quadrupled, from 15 to 56 defendants, according to the complaint [PDF]. The average time on the wait list has ballooned from 30 days to 180 days, a situation which the plaintiffs describe as a “state of crisis.”

While waiting for competency services, the defendants remain incarcerated for extended periods in county jails, which the complaint alleges are “not designed, nor administered, to provide for the psychiatric needs of people with mental illness.”

“None of these defendants have been found guilty, and yet the State warehouse them in county jails until Defendant USH has an open spot in a forensic unit,” the complaint states. “The warehousing of people with mental illness in county jails when they have not been convicted of any crime, and are legally unable to stand trial, violates the presumption of innocence and the due process rights of Class Members to be free of confinement until convicted of a crime.”

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Center District of Utah, accuses the state of violating the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause and a corresponding provision in the Utah State Constitution. The Utah Department of Human Services, the Division of Substance Abuse & Mental Health and the Utah State Hospital are listed as defendants in the complaint.

Disability Rights Washington brought a similar lawsuit against Washington State’s system for competency evaluations and restoration services, resulting in a federal court finding that the state systematically violated the defendant’s due process rights and an order for the state to comply with a state-mandated 7-day wait time for restoration services.

The Disability Law Center and Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of Rooted in Rights, are part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and members of the National Disability Rights Network.