USA’s Competency to Stand Trial Problem

A December 2017 article, entitled: “Colorado to spend $20 million to relieve ongoing backlog of mental competency evaluations; critics say problem was foreseeable,  in the Denver Post newspaper and recently reprised highlighted what has been a national crisis in the psychiatric inpatient care delivery system for at least the past decade.

Colorado’s problem has continued to balloon up so persistently that the article stated: “[the]State can’t keep up with monthly court orders for competency evaluation, which jumped from 146 to 215” swamping the entire state hospital bed capability. And as has happened in every other state, the regular emergent psychiatric admissions to the state’s public psychiatric hospitals were delayed, creating the all too familiar backups of patients in ERs statewide. And it must be remembered that almost all referrals for admission to state psychiatric hospitals are true emergencies.

A guard is reflected in a ...
Helen H. Davis, Denver Post file

A hallway at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo, Denver Post file photo.

Judge Marsha Pechman of Washington state began fining Washington in the fall of 2017 $1500 daily after she found the state in contempt for not being able to deliver adequate care for the ITP patients. Her fines later escalated as she found the CEO of the Western State Hospital and the state mental health agency in contempt, to over $50M in total fines last year. By the time Judge Pechman began to levy the fines against Washington, its statewide monthly judicial orders, mirroring Colorado’s almost exactly were averaging 291 in-jail evaluation orders.
The issue is that most states in the USA continue to be flooded with mandated admissions of inmates from state judicial systems for psychiatric evaluations. These types of admissions are variously termed ITPs or incompetent to proceed to trial patients and other arcane terms derived from states’ laws designations. Washington state has struggled mightily more than most states with this issue so much that a Washington state judge has fined the state over $50M in the past two years because of the delays in care for other patients who had ended up warehoused for weeks to months at a time in general hospitals all over the state.
The Governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, who has been working at a furious pace with the Washington state legislature, recently announced new plans to try to have regional, non-state hospital-based forensic evaluation centers in different parts of the state by 2022 to handle all the ITP case needs. This is innovative in that most states do not have such a system.
In decades past, states had “forensic centers” that were designated the proper facilities to handle such cases. In the states that had such, their capacities were usually not increased from levels of the 1960’s. One such notable and nationally recognized center was and still is Michigan’s Center for Forensic Psychiatry south of Ann Arbor Michigan. Another has been the infamous Massachusetts facility Bridgewater state hospital’s forensic unit. Its heyday has long passed, and it has been the site of repeated scandals for a good decade and is not such a good example…
Nationally some of the forensic facilities were phased out as such units were incorporated into state psychiatric hospitals’ physical plants. But overall, the bed needs were not increased to keep up with population growth for over 50 years, hence the ‘sudden’ swamping of these facilities in whatever form they existed nationally.
Additionally, the impetus of the legal system has been to increasingly become scrupulous about ensuring inmates’ rights are protected to assure access to mental health evaluation and treatment. Issues of below average intelligence, organic mental conditions and medical conditions affecting legal issues such as the ability to know right from wrong, judgment, impairment of any sort at the times of commission of crimes, were more readily identified than ever in the past.
Also, it likely has become the standard of practice in the world of legal defense representation, to adequately refer to such psychiatric review whenever there is a question such an issue may exist with any defendant.
All these factors have fed into the current national crisis of explosion of need for such forensic psychiatric services at all levels and not just in infamous trials involving serial killers or cases involving the rich and famous.
All states who currently fall short of providing these mandated services will have to face the coming necessities of funding for such services along with all the other inadequacies of social, educational and human services gutted over the last 30 years. How all this will play out will in no small part shape the political and social policy debates in this country for decades.
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Colorado To Cease Using Jails for Mental Health ‘Holds’

Colorado has had the practice of holding patients needing psychiatric evaluation in jail for many years. There are a number of states who utilize the local, county or municipal jails for such purposes around the country. Some observers of the long term history mental health services’ delivery, have chalked up this practice to the lack of hospitals and therefore emergency rooms, in large areas of states that have no psychiatric services. This practice has largely been dropped by most states. It seems to persist especially in western states where communities are far from such facilities and have to rely on the local jails to ‘hold’ prospective mental health patients who need emergency evaluations and there are no suitable mental health resources available locally.

The term mental health ‘hold’ is essentially another term for an “involuntary civil detention” of a person who has not committed a crime but is a danger to themselves or others. Usually, these kinds of orders in Colorado and other states such as Kansas, to permit holding persons against their will for up to 72 hours. Kansas, for the curious reader, is struggling at present with the issue of how to structure their involuntary holding process altogether.

Colorado now is moving legislatively to force the abandonment of this practice for once and all. In an article entitled, “Colorado would outlaw using jails for mental health holds, increase services under $9,5 million proposal,” written by reporter Jennifer Brown and published in the newspaper, the Denver Post yesterday, this attempt at modernizing and providing mental health intervention and referral services before persons in need have to parked in jails is detailed.

The main thrust and corrective action of this bill would be to establish “two-person teams” that would perform evaluations locally and refer persons felt to be having more mental health problems than legal ones, on to suitable treatment resources before they would be placed in a local jail. This bill would ban the use of jails as holding areas for such persons based on an initial judgment of their being a danger to themselves or others, such as persons who made suicidal threats and about whom an emergency phone call has been issued by families or spouses to the first responders who usually are the police.

The bill would further increase the availability of the on call assessment teams, increase local crisis response centers and transportation from rural areas to treatment centers. A “behavior health specialist” would work directly with police on such emergent service requests and in effect intervene to deflect the crisis-bound person in need to treatment rather than to a local jail.

Interestingly enough, the funding for this expansion of statewide largely rural emergency mental health services is envisioned to be funded by monies from the medical marijuana retail industry now legal and growing in Colorado.

Presently, Colorado law permits holding such a person deemed in mental health crisis in jails for up to 24 hours and then mandating disposition such as transportation to a distant behavioral health services center, such as a clinic or a large urban hospital ER, or the state hospital many miles away also. In practice, it appears that such persons in crisis were held for longer than the prescribed 24 hours and that counties found the volume of such patients to be higher than they were equipped to deal with. The article notes one example county had over one hundred persons in its jails in little over a year’s period of time. The article makes mention of the issues seen all over the country, that law enforcement agencies face day in, day out, namely the lack of resources to provide transportation for patients. It notes that counties would face the issue of removing a law enforcement officer from patrol service to the county when a patient would be driven to a far distant mental health service center. The article notes that this is a much bigger problem in the wide open spaces, sparsely populated of Colorado’s western counties. I lived in western Colorado for a few years as a young child in mountainous mining towns and my trips back later in life showed things and population densities had not changed. So I read the dilemmas that the agencies providing mental health or first responder services in the vast reaches of a western state and immediately sensed why.

The article notes that Colorado has the sixth highest suicide rate in the USA, yet is in the bottom half of the states in this country as far as providing adequate mental health/substance abuse services.

Observers of the mental health reform scene in this country may watch Colorado’s admirable restructuring of mental health service delivery efforts through the vehicle of this commendable legislation.

 

Colorado Has Same State Wide Problem

A very recent article, Colorado Still Lacks Inpatient Psychiatric Care by Ms. Elizabeth Drew published May 10, 2016 documents the same kinds of problems with psychiatric acute inpatient treatment resources that many other states have faced around the USA for the last 15 to 20 years.

Ms. Drew highlights the backdrop that started the mental health reform effort in Colorado so suddenly and starkly. Colorado suffered the misfortune to have the two double tragedies of mass shootings, the Columbine High School tragedy a number of years ago and the more recent Aurora CO theater shootings of 2012 committed by the then clearly psychotic James Holmes, whose trial riveted the nation. The James Holmes shooting caused a huge outcry from the public in that state for major and thoroughgoing changes in mental health services’ delivery.

Colorado has closed two state hospitals due to aging facilities being shut down and not being replaced. Colorado ranks now well below the current statistical average of 14 or so (13.9 in the previous blog posting’s article) per 100,000 beds for public inpatient psychiatric care in the state. Like many other states, its public mental health system has suffered greatly in the past two decades with inadequate funding and lack of growth of services commensurate with its higher than national average population growth. And like many other states, tragedies have begun to ramp up in severity, frequency and publicity as the “chickens have come home to roost.”

This article describes the very ambitious and quite rapid changes in point of fact, that Colorado put into place just last year, only about three years or so after the Aurora theater shooting. A massive state-wide system of acute outpatient crisis centers and much more rapid access to mental health contact, screenings and referrals to treatment resources was put in place. This clearly had a positive effect. Admirably, Colorado has begun a serious open effort to evaluate only one year into the operation of its new system. The results have been mixed and no matter what criticisms or kudos one may choose to endorse. Colorado, in my opinion as a long-time observer of mental health reform efforts nationwide, had commendable courage to permit and undertake this open review process. This review effort, documented in Ms. Drew’s article appears to show two results if I may condense and categorize them: 1) positive results in the delivery of acute mostly outpatient services, and 2) the common bugaboo of the yet unaddressed shortage of acute inpatient hospital beds seen now almost everywhere. Ms. Drew succinctly summarizes the reasons for this as relating to loss and closure of state hospital psychiatric beds and facilities, and,  inadequate funding at the state and federal levels of the riddle of the expense of inpatient psychiatric hospital based treatment. [In a coming post I will try my psychiatric hand at explaining why inpatient psychiatric treatment is always expensive].

In  coming posts,  I will try my psychiatric hand at enumerating other issues common to all states beyond hospital beds that make the current mental health delivery crisis so severe. These issues will include the shortage of mental health professionals especially psychiatrists and the history of some more discrete and largely unknown to the public, mental health training fund losses that have caused our current severe practitioner shortages.