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Department of Health Agrees to End Lengthy Waitlist for Admission of Prisoners with Mental Illness to State Mental Hospital

Individuals found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity were routinely denied access to mental health treatment and the opportunity to stand trial

BATON ROUGE, La. – Under terms of a settlement agreement in a lawsuit brought by the Advocacy Center of Louisiana and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) will end the practice of warehousing certain mentally ill detainees in parish jails. The Agreement will instead require the Department to admit them promptly to a mental health hospital for treatment.

Under long-standing Louisiana law, people who are acquitted as Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity and are found to remain both mentally ill and dangerous at the time of their acquittal must be sent for inpatient treatment at a state mental hospital or comparable private psychiatric facility. Pre-trial detainees who are found incompetent to stand trial because of mental disabilities may also be ordered to the state mental hospital for restorative mental health treatment before their cases can proceed.

Due in part to funding cuts, the wait times for these individuals to be transferred from jails to the only remaining state forensic psychiatric facility in Jackson, Louisiana, grew exponentially—exceeding a year in some cases. Those people had no option but to sit in the parish jails while waiting for admission.

Attorneys for the Advocacy Center, the ACLU of Louisiana, and Kirkland & Ellis, LLP previously filed suit in 2010 challenging the lengthy waitlists used in admitting pretrial detainees for competency restoration. As a result, the state entered into a consent decree, requiring it to admit all incompetent detainees to the hospital within a maximum of 30 days of the court’s order. While the wait times for incompetent detainees improved under the consent decree, wait times grew worse for those who had been found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity and ordered to the hospital for treatment. So attorneys with the Advocacy Center and MacArthur Justice Center filed a new lawsuit in Aug. 2014 on behalf of those found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity. Several months later, in Dec. 2014, the consent decree in the original lawsuit expired. Soon, the wait times for detainees ordered to competency restoration began climbing past the 30-day limit mandated under the former consent decree. By Nov. 2015, attorneys again filed suit challenging the wait list on behalf of those found incompetent to stand trial. The two cases were consolidated in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana with the goal of reducing wait times and vindicating the rights of both groups: those awaiting competency restoration and those found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity. The lawsuits alleged that the state’s failure to promptly transfer these groups to the hospital for treatment violates the individuals’ constitutional right to due process and discriminates against them on the basis of their disabilities, contrary to requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

By the terms of the settlement, pending the court’s approval, LDH will expand its bed capacity over the next eight months so that inmates with mental illness committed to LDH’s care will be admitted to the state hospital within 15 calendar days. All inmates ordered to LDH’s custody for competency restoration or care after an acquittal as Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity also will be screened to determine if they are in acute or emergency need of mental health care and, if so, admitted to the hospital within two days. The agreement also calls for LDH to consult with the plaintiffs in developing a plan to provide more community placement options, such as group homes in major cities, for individuals whose mental health has improved with treatment so that they are not dangerous.

“Due to cuts in state funding for mental health services, the number of incarcerated men and women with severe mental illness has grown tremendously in recent years. However, it is inhumane and discriminatory to jail people because of their mental disabilities,” explained Ronald K. Lospennato, an attorney with the Advocacy Center. “We’re pleased that the Louisiana Department of Health has agreed to take steps to quickly move people with mental illness out of the parish jails and into the therapeutic environments where they can receive appropriate treatment,” Lospennato said.

“This agreement—which will be in place for at least four years—will ensure that these groups of prisoners with mental illnesses are admitted to the state hospital system for necessary therapeutic treatment as soon as possible,” said Eric Foley, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center. “Equally important, though, is the prospect of LDH’s developing increased community placement options that will allow them eventually to be reintegrated into their communities and have increased contact with family and loved ones.”

PDF of the settlement is HERE »

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About the Advocacy Center of Louisiana
The Advocacy Center of Louisiana is a statewide non-profit organization dedicated to assisting people with disabilities and seniors in Louisiana to achieve maximum potential and independence. The Advocacy Center employs 50 people statewide who assist people to achieve employment, education, housing, and health care goals.

About the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center
The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center is a public interest law firm founded by the family of J. Roderick MacArthur to advocate for human rights and social justice through litigation.

Keywords: Eric Foley, mental health

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