SALT LAKE CITY — A federal class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of mentally ill inmates in county jails alleges state agencies such as the Utah State Hospital "unconstitutionally delay" treatment intended to restore inmates' mental competency, thereby violating their due process rights.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for Utah, says waiting times for treatment have "reached a state of crisis."
The Utah State Hospital's waiting list has doubled each year for the past three years, with wait times increasing from 30 days to 180 days, the lawsuit states. The state hospital, the lawsuit notes, is the only facility statewide authorized to perform competency restoration.
"For defendants with mental illness stuck in this jail ‘limbo,’ these long delays result in needless suffering, including steadily worsening symptoms, self-mutilation, suicide attempts, and prolonged detention in solitary confinement. The Disability Law Center and the other plaintiffs allege that warehousing these very ill people in jail when they have not been convicted of any crime, and are legally unable to stand trial for a crime, is both cruel and unconstitutional,” said Aaron Kinikini, legal director of the law center, which filed the lawsuit along with plaintiffs' attorneys.
The lawsuit names as defendants the state of Utah; the Utah Department of Human Services and its executive director, Ann Williamson; the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health and its division director, Douglas Thomas; and the state hospital and its superintendent, Dallas Earnshaw.
In a prepared statement, the Department of Human Services said the Utah Attorney General's Office is reviewing the lawsuit.
"The Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health and the Utah State Hospital promote health, treat illness and support recovery, and we continuously review the quality of our care, prevention and treatment services," the statement said.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three plaintiffs, who range in age from 27 to 71. Two of the plaintiffs were ordered by courts to receive competency restoration treatment.
The third, a 71-year-old man charged with shoplifting, was found mentally ill by a state district court judge and ordered in May to receive treatment, care, custody and security adequate and appropriate to his conditions and needs. The man remains in the custody of the Salt Lake County Jail, the lawsuit states.
One of the plaintiffs has been housed in the Utah County Jail for nearly a year and committed to the state hospital for competency restoration treatment in April. He has not been admitted to the state hospital and remains in the jail where he has been housed in solitary confinement, the lawsuit states.
"While the state’s ongoing practice of placing incompetent defendants on a perpetual wait list is due to a chronic shortage of funding, beds and staff at the Utah State Hospital, such a fiscal bind certainly does not excuse it. Our complaint argues that fundamental constitutional rights cannot be honored or denied based on the political will to make legislative appropriations," said plaintiffs attorney Jared Fields, a lawyer in private practice and president of the Disability Law Center's board of trustees.
The plaintiffs are seeking an order from the federal court that declares by "requiring mentally incompetent defendants to remain in city and county jails for protracted periods, and by failing to provide restorative treatment in a reasonably, timely manner, defendants are depriving class members of their due process rights under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution," the lawsuit states.
While the number of inmates that could be part of the class action fluctuates, the lawsuit states it "is believed to consist of 40 to 60 individuals at present."