Competency cases move slowly through Mich. court system

The Grand Rapids Press

Grand Rapids – Competency cases for mentally ill defendants move through the Michigan criminal justice system slowly because of a lack of space at a state psychiatric facility, a newspaper investigation found.

A November list provided to MLive from the Department of Health and Human Services shows that 110 defendants were awaiting mental health treatment.

Wayne County Jail had the highest number of inmates on the list. Defendants wait an average of three to four months for treatment, said Zenna Elhasan, corporation counsel for the jail.

Prosecutors or defense attorneys can request a mental health evaluation after someone is charged. A doctor then examines the person for criminal responsibility and competency to stand trial.

If the person is found incompetent, the state then has a set amount of time to rehabilitate the individual — either 15 months or a third of the maximum potential sentence for the crime.

Cases then end up being delayed for months or up to a year as defendants wait in county jails for space to open up at a psychiatric facility.

A review of the state’s budgets found that mental health funding has decreased 76 percent in the past 50 years.

State Department of Health and Human Services officials said they’re working to address the problem.

“We are very aware and concerned about the significant waitlist for admission of incompetent to stand trial defendants to the Center for Forensic Psychiatry,” said Jennifer Eisner, a department spokeswoman. “We are open to a number of different approaches as we address this very serious problem.”

The department spent $7 million last year to add 34 beds to the Center for Forensic Psychiatry.

The department is helping regional hospitals train clinicians to conduct more efficient competency evaluations and restoration treatment, Eisner said. Clinicians may begin conducting screenings to determine which defendants are most in need of care, she said.