ACLU brings DHS back to court about people with mental illness waiting for trials in jail

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The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a brief in federal court saying the PA Department of Human Services isn’t acting fast enough.

The organization wants Pennsylvanians with severe mental illness accused of crimes to be housed in secured treatment facilities instead of jails, and not have to wait months to do so. The lawsuit is for people who are found not competant to stand trial.

DHS says wait times and waitlists to get people into treatment have gone down. But the ACLU says there needs to be more progress.

These are folks who have severe psychiatric disabilities, said Andy Hoover of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. They see and hear and feel things that are not there.

Hoover remembers when the legal battles began in 2015.

Our lead plaintiff was accused of shoplifting three dollars of peppermint patty candies, and he had spent more than a year in jail, said Hoover.

DHS has come to two settlements with the organization, but advocates say change isn’t happening fast enough.

Now the ACLU is back in federal court and is asking for any wait beyond seven days to be considered unconstitutional.

It’s a class action lawsuit so everyone who is affected by this particular issue would be impacted by the results of the lawsuit, said Hoover.

DHS sent abc27 a statement saying in part, We are surprised and disappointed that the ACLU chose to return to court after months of successful negotiations.

As of the first week of March, there are 45 people who have been waiting more than 60 days. There is one person that had been waiting 297 days, said Hoover.

But DHS doesn’t agree with how those numbers are being calculated.

The state says as of mid-March, there were 120 people on the waitlist. 

It says it takes an average of 53 days to get into a treatment facility in Eastern PA, and an average of 16 days in Western PA.

A representative tells us the department has made great progress, but wants to continue working with the ACLU to reduce wait times and waitlists.

Hoover wants a judge to push the effort.

To give the Department of Human Services a date start for when they have to hit this brief wait in jail, said Hoover.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU asks for this to be resolved by the end of the summer. 

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