To no one's surprise a state district judge in Austin last week ruled that mentally incompetent state inmates are being kept in jail too long before moving them to psychiatric hospitals.
In San Antonio, criminal defendants in need of a bed in a state psychiatric facility are routinely spending months in the Bexar County jail waiting for transfer.
Late last week, there were 17 inmates at the Bexar County jail awaiting transfer to a state hospital bed. Some of them have been in the county jail for almost 300 days.
In what many hail as a major court victory for the mentally ill in Texas, state District Judge Orlinda Naranjo has ordered the Department of State Health Services to transfer defendants who have been ruled incompetent to stand trial due to mental illness to a state psychiatric hospital within 21 days of receiving a judge's order, the Austin American Statesman reported.
That is indeed great news for advocates and the families of defendants with mental health problems who have fought long and hard against the criminalization of the mentally ill. Mental health patients need treatment and should not be held in local lockups. On average, mentally incompetent prisoners are spending up to 6 months in jail before being transferred to a state hospital.
The state attorney general's office has not yet decided if it will appeal the judge's ruling.
Complying with the judge's order will be a major undertaking. Over the last two years, there has been a waiting list of about 400 inmates for the 800 available state hospital beds.
The lack of sufficient state hospital beds for pretrial criminal defendants with mental health issues has been a long-standing problem across the state. There has been much legislation passed to address the needs of the mentally ill. Sadly, the new statutes are often nothing more than unfunded mandates passed on to local governments, which often lack the resources to fully comply.
Naranjo's ruling in a 2007 lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Texas, a federally funded group that advocates for people with disabilities, brings much needed attention to a longer festering problem. This problem should have been addressed years ago.
It is unfortunate that it often requires court action to get the state to do what is just and fair.
(source: Editorial, San Antonio Express-News, Jan. 31)