Utah settles lawsuit over mentally ill inmates in jails

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s Department of Human Services has settled a class-action lawsuit leveled against it by dozens of mentally ill inmates stuck in jails awaiting treatment.

On Monday, the agency and the Disability Law Center (which is representing the inmates) announced the agreement that would end the litigation. It would establish timelines and guidelines for inmates awaiting diagnosis and treatment to restore competency.

“People will get in sooner,” Doug Thomas, the director of the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, said in an interview Tuesday.

A sign leading to the Utah State Hospital in Provo. (FOX 13 file image)

FOX 13 first reported on the lawsuit last year. The Disability Law Center alleged people would get arrested for crimes ranging from shoplifting to more serious assaults. After a judge found them mentally ill and ordered them sent to the state hospital for restoration of competency, they would languish in jails because there’s no bed space.

Some inmates sat in jails indefinitely, the Disability Law Center alleged. Some spent more time in jail waiting for treatment at the state hospital than they would have done had they been convicted.

“We’ve seen several members of our class over the last several years deteriorate, some have committed suicide. It’s been kind of a horror show,” said Aaron Kinikini, the Disability Law Center’s legal director.

The settlement will include bringing services to inmates while they’re still in jail.

“We have a jail-based program that’s going to be doing competency restoration which we haven’t had previously. We’ve been working with Salt Lake County to develop that inside their jail,” Thomas told FOX 13.

Timelines for treatment will also be sped up, Kinikini said. Within six months, the wait times for treatment go down to 60 days. Within a year, they’re expected to reduce to 30 days. Within 18 months, they go down to 14 days.

There will be outside oversight as the programs are implemented and a federal judge must still approve the settlement agreement within 45 days. However, both sides agreed to waive attorney’s fees in favor of the reforms

The issue does not solve the bed space issue at the state hospital, but Thomas was hopeful the Utah State Legislature would address that next year.

“We have 100 beds at the state hospital and we’ve had those 100 beds since 2000,” he said. “The population of Utah has increased dramatically in that time period. We’re hoping the jail based unit and the outreach will be sufficient to building more beds.”