Defendants Face Delays in Mental Health Treatments
In many states, mentally ill defendants facing charges of low-level felonies and misdemeanors can spend months in jail awaiting evaluations or bed space in hospitals, say mental- health experts and judges.
In a process known as restoration, mentally ill defendants are transferred to a state hospital and receive treatment until they are able to understand the consequences of the charges against them and are deemed mentally competent to stand trial. The big problem with this arrangement? The time spent waiting in jail before receiving treatment is often longer than the jail time sentence they receive for committing the crime. The demand for defendant mental-health treatment has increased, and hospitals cannot keep up.
“Jails are not hospitals, they are not designed as therapeutic environments, and they are not equipped to manage mental illness,” said Chief U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman. Demand for competency evaluations increased 82% in a ten year period in Washington state. Pechman declared that the long wait times violate the U.S. Constitution, and ordered the state Department of Social and Health Services to act within 7 days of receiving a judge’s order for a defendant’s competency evaluation. In March, the state instead passed a law requiring a 14-day time frame, to avoid rushed evaluations and potentially false findings.
Other states are also pushing for change like Washington state. Florida has implemented a treatment center for defendants charged with low level crimes. According to Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman, who leads a Florida Supreme Court task force on mental- health and substance abuse, the new system is “much cheaper, much faster, and the outcomes are so much better.” Across the country, there are over 300 similar programs. This is definitely a step in the right direction.
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Phoenix Police Training Dedicated “Mental Health Squad”
The Phoenix Police Department is in the process of training a new crisis-intervention squad to handle mental health related calls. In Phoenix alone, there are over 4,000 court-ordered pickups for officers each year. The goal of the 7 officer squad is to improve the way police officers interact with mentally ill individuals, and to reduce the number of violent encounters that occur between them. The death of Phoenix resident Michelle Cusseaux, who was shot last year by officers during an ordered mental-health pickup, is what prompted the creation of the team.
Phoenix Police Commander Michael Kurtenback says, “We recognize that law enforcement is oftentimes ill-equipped to handle such a crisis unless we’re given the tools in the training to try and mitigate the situation. The last thing we want to do is criminalize mental health.”
Phoenix Police Commander Matt Giordano, who will be on the mental health squad, explains, “It is our job to maintain calmness, and that will translate to the person in crisis and help them remain calm. Sometimes it is a lengthy process- not going to be quick- going to take time to establish a rapport to get the situation calm, which will allow us to safely take the person into custody and get them the help they are going to need.”
The mental health squad members are currently undergoing extensive training, and will continue to receive ongoing training. The team should be up and running by the end of May.
There have already been too many tragedies involving mentally ill individuals and the police. Mentally ill individuals in a crisis do not have full control of their mental faculties, and may act without understanding the full consequences of their actions. Hopefully, this new crisis intervention team will be able to diffuse tense situations and prevent mentally ill individuals from acting in a way that may affect their future.
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