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The Utah Legislature recently set aside $3 million in an effort to resolve a federal lawsuit alleging that mentally-ill defendants are not provided a speedy trial and suffer in jail without treatment sometimes in solitary confinement because the state does not provide enough hospital beds and specialists to treat them.
Although they are charged with crimes, the defendants have been deemed incompetent to stand trial. Usually, they are ordered into treatment after competency hearings in an effort to make them fully aware of their circumstances and rights.
Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder recently called the situation "abhorrent."
"The fact that an individual can be maintained in a correctional facility in our country without a [case] disposition is the epitome of a problem," Winder said. "I can't even find the right words for it."
Not only is it backward, he said, it is not the most financially prudent strategy. The cost to stay at the Salt Lake County jail is equivalent to $92 per day for each inmate.
But a solution may now be in the offing, said Aaron Kinikini, legal director for the Disability Law Center, which brought the lawsuit.
"We're working hard toward a resolution," he said Monday, "and hopefully we'll get there."
But there is no simple fix, because the defendants have a variety of symptoms from easily treatable to difficult to manage. The solution, Kinikini said, "remains to be seen."
A spokesman for the attorney general's office confirmed that negotiations were under way. But Dan Burton said he could not comment on the details.
Among the problems is that the state has 100 beds for such individuals, so overflow defendants are placed in county jails, where they wait for months for a bed at the Utah State Hospital.
The waiting list to get into the state hospital for treatment had doubled every year for three years prior to 2015, according to the lawsuit, from an average of 30 days to 180 days.
The charges against the defendants run the gamut from petty misdemeanors to violent felonies. In some instances, they wait in jail for treatment longer than a standard sentence for their alleged crime, according to the Utah Disability Law Center, which filed suit in U.S. District Court for Utah against the state in 2015, claiming violations of constitutional rights.
Kinikini said that he believes any viable solution would reduce incarceration wait times to 30 days or less. But that is something that has yet to be negotiated.
"How much time is acceptable for people not convicted to be sitting in jail?" he asked rhetorically.
In its lawsuit, the Disability Law Center highlighted a 71-year-old plaintiff identified only as S.W. He was booked into Salt Lake County jail on March 21, 2014, on a shoplifting charge. More than 13 months later, he was found mentally incompetent to stand trial and was committed to the state hospital for treatment to bring him to a legally acceptable competence.
But four months after the court's order and after nearly a year and a half in jail S.W. had not been admitted to the hospital.
Nationally, most states have wait times for treatment of less than 30 days, while several states have requirements that mentally incompetent inmates are transferred to a state hospital within seven days.
The lawsuit also alleges that inmates are sometimes kept for months in solitary confinement for minor crimes.
In April, the state sought dismissal of the suit, but federal Judge Robert Shelby denied the motion.