In a case casting new light on the justice system's struggle with mental illness, civil-rights advocates filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Pennsylvania officials, claiming mentally ill defendants in criminal cases wait months or years for treatment meant to render them fit for trial, says the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Federal courts have ruled that so-called competency restoration treatment should begin within seven days of a judge's order. “Yet in Pennsylvania, many wait over a year,” said the suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington, D.C., law firm Arnold & Porter. The ACLU and civil-rights groups have filed similar lawsuits in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
The delays experienced by Pennsylvania defendants are believed to be the longest nationwide, said the suit, filed against three officials of the Department of Human Services, which operates state mental hospitals. “This is truly a crisis that is going to require a huge response to fix these problems,” said Witold Walczak, Pennsylvania legal director for the ACLU. The suit involves criminal defendants with mental illnesses so severe that they cannot understand the charges against them or participate in their defense. When a judge rules them incompetent, they are ordered into treatment with the goal of rendering them fit for trial later. Two state hospitals have forensic units where competency restoration treatment is provided, and those 240 beds are “perpetually full,” the suit said. In some cases, the amount of time defendants spend in jail waiting for a hospital bed exceeds the sentences they would have received by pleading guilty to the charges against them.