Judge signs off on agreement to speed treatment for Utah inmates deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial

Courts • Settlement agreement resolves class-action lawsuit.

A federal court judge has accepted a settlement agreement that would reduce significantly the time that mentally ill inmates in Utah wait without treatment.

In June, the Disability Law Center entered into a settlement agreement with the Utah Department of Human Services to resolve a class-action lawsuit filed in September 2015 alleging that mentally ill inmates were waiting months in jail without treatment and therefore were denied speedy trials.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby signed off on the agreement.

The waitlist for defendants in county jails to receive treatment has averaged three to six months over the past three years. The settlement agreement would reduce wait times to 60 days within six months. Wait times would further be reduced to 30 days after one year and continue down to 14 days after eight months.

Aaron Kinikini, legal director of the Disability Law Center, last month applauded the agreement, saying it obligates the state to continue to improve its mental health treatment system according to mandatory goals and deadlines.

"Due to a lack of funding in the Utah State Hospital system, people charged, but not convicted of crimes, too ill to proceed to trial, waited for months on end in our state's county jails after being court ordered into treatment to restore their competence," Kinikini said in a statement. "Hundreds of people with severe mental illness have silently suffered in jail cells as a result of delayed and denied treatment. Some have died while waiting."

Ann Silverberg Williamson, executive director of the Department of Human Services, said last month: "We care about those in and out of our state criminal justice system who struggle with mental illness and substance abuse disorders. We have long advocated for proactive solutions and investment to address comprehensive treatment needs."

The agreement, she said, will avoid costly litigation and develops a plan to reduce the waitlist.

"The complexity of solutions to overcome mental health suffering cannot be overstated," Silverberg Williamson said.

Under the agreement, the Utah State Hospital will establish and operate a $3 million jail-based unit in Salt Lake County. The parties also agreed to continue the state's community-based Outreach Program, launched in 2016 to treat low-risk mental patients to lessen the wait time for beds at the hospital.