ACLU demands Pa. provide mental health treatment for prisoners within days, not months

The American Civil Liberties Union requested a preliminary injunction against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Tuesday following ongoing delays to provide mental health treatment to defendants who have been deemed incompetent to stand trial.

The motion, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, asks the courts to require the state Department of Human Services to provide appropriate mental health treatment to defendants no longer than a week after they’ve been deemed incompetent to stand trial. It asks for the deadline to be in place by September.

Defendants in Pennsylvania typically wait in county prisons for 30 to 120 days for beds in state psychiatric hospitals following a court-order for mental health treatment. The ACLU argues that those delays are both unconstitutional and inhumane given the defendants’ serious mental health issues.

“It causes tremendous suffering,” said Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “And in a percentage of people it will not only make them worse temporarily it could cause them permanent, irreparable damage.”

In a statement, the Department of Human Services said Tuesday that it was surprised and disappointed by the ACLU’s request for an injunction.

“We remain committed to working with the ACLU in reaching our mutual goal of avoiding protracted delays in getting individuals with a mental illness and in need of competency restoration the treatment they need,” said Ali Fogarty, a spokeswoman for the department.

The injunction is the latest maneuver in a three-year legal saga between the ACLU and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania over delays first highlighted by a PennLive investigation in 2015.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Department of Human Services in Oct. 2015 and the parties reached a settlement to reduce delays. After wait-times failed to significantly improve, the ACLU revived its lawsuit and reached a second settlement with DHS in 2017.

The ACLU said it requested Tuesday’s injunction because of the department’s ongoing failure to reduce wait-times to constitutionally-acceptable levels. The ACLU said its lawyers had been attempting to reach a new settlement agreement with the department but the department abruptly stopped responding to the ACLU’s emails two months ago.

In a statement, Fogarty, the department spokeswoman, conceded that its recent communications with the ACLU could have been more timely.

“Although we regret that communications have not been more timely in recent weeks, and apologized to the ACLU before it filed the motion, DHS has been moving forward to implement the provisions of the settlement agreement that the parties were negotiating, even though an agreement has not been signed,” Fogarty said.

Walczak said that although Pennsylvania’s wait-times for competency treatment are still too long, he gave the department credit for making progress.

As part of its earlier settlements with the ACLU, the department added 50 new state hospital beds for defendants and more than 200 community health beds.

Meanwhile, according to Walczak, the department had worked with counties to divert seriously mentally ill people charged with crimes from entering the prison system. The ACLU views that as an essential element of reducing delays along with increasing the number of beds available for treatment.

“We have to both increase capacity and cut the flow of people coming into the system,” Walczak said.

To put the impact of those changes in perspective: In 2015, defendants judged incompetent to stand trial waited an average of 50 days for beds at Torrance State Hospital and 290 days for beds at Norristown State Hospital. Those delays were believed to be the worst in the nation.

Today, according to an ACLU of state statistics, defendants typically wait a month for Torrance and four months for Norristown.

But while Pennsylvania may no longer have the worst delays in the nation, Walczak said the state’s delays were still inhumane and unconstitutional. Federal courts in Oregon and Washington have determined that defendants deemed incompetent to stand trial should wait no longer than seven days for treatment.

In addition, Walczak said, most defendants wait an extra two to four weeks in Pennsylvania’s county prisons while paperwork is completed between counties and the state Department of Human Services. Those extra days are not factored into state statistics on wait-times – an ongoing concern for the ACLU.

Ultimately, Walczak said, while Pennsylvania was doing better, it still had significant work to do.

“We need to bring this to a conclusion and get these times down,” Walczak said.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with comment from the state Department of Human Services.]