Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Dallas Earnshaw, Utah State Hospital superintendent, opens a locked door as he leads a tour of the Inpatient Forensic Restoration Unit at the Utah State Hospital in Provo on Thursday, July 19, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Wait times for people ordered to undergo mental health treatment before they can stand trial in Utah continue to shrink, showing the Utah State Hospital is making good on an agreement to speed up the process, its leader said Tuesday.

As of September, the wait averaged 23 days, down from 40 in July and from a longer period of roughly six months in 2017, Dallas Earnshaw, hospital superintendent, told a legislative panel Tuesday.

"We've done a tremendous job," he said.

The progress complies with terms of a settlement after the Disability Law Center sued in 2015, arguing defendants' constitutional rights were violated because they were being held for months in jail cells as they awaited treatment, sometimes for longer than their potential sentences could have been. Last year, a Deseret News investigation revealed the effect of the lag on those awaiting treatment and their families.

The settlement set various benchmarks, including a 30-day maximum wait by Sept. 30.

The Provo-based hospital has freed up more beds by identifying defendants who can remain outside of its facility and still make progress by meeting regularly with hospital employees who visit them in jail or in their communities. It has brought on outside consultants and improved communication with courts and prosecutors, Earnshaw said.

Utah judges consider doctors' evaluations and determine if those accused of a crime are competent, meaning they can understand the charges against them and communicate effectively with their attorneys. If a defendant is deemed not competent, the case is paused until competency is restored.

As of Monday, five defendants in criminal cases were awaiting admission, down from 15 in July, Earnshaw told members of the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee during an interim legislative meeting in Salt Lake City.

The hospital will need more than $2 million in state funding to open 12 more beds and meet the settlement's March deadline for a two-week wait time, Earnshaw said.

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The number of people the courts have referred to the hospital has grown 80 percent in the last five years, Earnshaw said. And in the past three months, it has doubled from the same period last year, he told the panel.

One lawmaker on the panel, Rep. Ed Redd, R-Logan, is also a physician. He has long worked with jail inmates and said the progress is "tremendous." Previously, those with mental illnesses often waited months, he said, and it sometimes made them sicker.

"I hope we can continue to make improvements," Redd said, "because it's a lot better than it was before."