Courts keeping mentally ill inmates longer than law allows, audit claims

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SALT LAKE CITY -- An audit of the Utah State Hospital has found that patients undergoing mental competency evaluations have been kept much longer than state law allows.

The revelation was in an audit of Utah's Department of Human Services budget that was presented to the Utah State Legislature's Audit Subcommittee on Tuesday. It found that over the past five years, 64 patients had been kept for more than the state maximum one year stay.

"The longest stay was just over two-and-a-half years," the audit said.

Read the audit here:

Under Utah law, the state hospital's forensic program can keep people accused of third-degree felonies and misdemeanors for up to a year. Capital murder and first- and second-degree felonies can be kept up to 18 months, at which point a judge must review it.

The audit noted that what happens with a defendant "is ultimately the judge's decision."

"I just have a hard time understanding how a court can just violate the law," House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, asked during a hearing on the audit.  "I mean, are the attorneys for the people being evaluated ... are they not concerned about this taking so long?"

"They are, and we're discussion with them all the time," replied Utah State Hospital Superintendent Dallas Earnshaw. "In actuality, these are very rare cases."

Earnshaw noted "it's complicated," balancing the needs of patients with public safety and legal statute.

Kent Hart, the executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told FOX 13 he believed judges were acting with the best intentions -- but there is concern that people's constitutional rights are being violated.

"I think judges, out of an abundance of caution, are trying to protect the public," he said. "But they are violating the rights of people presumed to be innocent."

Hart said the legislature has an opportunity to enact meaningful changes to protect the rights of mentally ill criminal defendants. At the legislative committee, there was discussion about beginning competency evaluations in jails or having misdemeanor offenders do some kind of outpatient evaluations.

"Rather than spend money for more beds, we're trying to look at more cost-effective measures reaching out to these individuals while they're waiting to come into the hospital," Earnshaw said.

The audit was passed out of committee for the legislature to consider in the January session. In a statement, the Administrative Office of the Utah State Courts insisted that "any extended stay is not for lack of attention."

Read the statement from the Utah State Courts here:

As Dallas Earnshaw stated today, this is not a black and white issue, but can be very complicated. Judges are charged with protecting public safety. They must balance the rights of a defendant while protecting the public. For the few cases that do overstay the presumptive time limit, it usually is because the court is allowing the prosecutor time to file civil commitment charges or for mental health professionals to find an alternative placement for the defendant. Any extended stay is not for lack of attention.

8 comments

  • Finny Wiggen

    Earnshaw noted “it’s complicated, balancing the needs of patients with public safety and legal statute.”

    No… it really isn’t complicated. Sorry, but you don’t get to violate people’s rights ever. I would rather live in a society where crazy people walk the streets than a society where tyrannical rulers arbitrarily hold people longer than they are legally allowed to do so.

    Yes, we want people who are dangerous locked up. But respect for the law must ALWAYS trump all other concerns. Otherwise our system lacks all credibility, and anyone can do anything… so long as they can get away with it.

    It is unfortunate that there are people out there who have their thinking so muddied as the individual who made the above statement.

    • miles (dave)

      not true bringing our selves into alignment with reality and bringing our selves into alignment with right and good should trump all else. i am a god loving American but even then i would be willing to violate any law that just was not where it belonged, also i believe the vast amount of our laws are built by good people with the the peoples best interests in mind. the important specifics are not mentioned in this story so i cant say if the prolonged stay of the mentally ill was best but i can say that if the law is not upholding the best interests of the ill and the people in mind then yes if it were up to me and it was my call to hold people who needed more care longer than the law allowed because its just what made the most sense then yes i would, along with doing everything else i could to make sure the laws and system were working as well as possible to give these people the best care i could give them

    • Trish Ramirez

      So your preference is that the violently insane be allowed into the general American population where they can (and do) violate the rights of innocent people by violently and often s e x u a l l y abusing them, sometimes to the point of death? It’s better to protect the ‘rights’ of a few – people with no concept of right and wrong and violent tendencies – than to protect the rights AND safety of everyone else by keeping these psychopaths in facilities where they can be monitored, controlled and treated to the best of the system’s ability?

      I think that the most sensible and realistic way to handle this issue is to change the law regarding detainment and confinement of mentally incompetent, dangerous crazies and allow hospitals and judges full discretion to keep these people away from society for as long as they pose a danger – forever if necessary.

      • Mike Hunt

        But trish, those evil cops will have to stop these criminals. I thought you loved criminals? I mean you support that loser willard like crazy…

  • anonymous

    Funny how Utah due to budget cuts wont help people who really need it. I really don’t get this state at all they seriously need a reality check. In Texas, You go to MHMR in the county you live in they help you whether you are insured or not get the help you need, have one on one sessions with a counselor and get your medications for you even if you are poor and cant afford them. Now I don’t know where they get the funding from but it seems to me like Utah could learn some things from them. JS.

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