Utah highlights reform efforts after lawsuit over mentally ill inmates being stuck in jails indefinitely

PROVO, Utah -- The state of Utah has instituted a series of court-ordered reforms following a class action lawsuit over mentally ill inmates detained indefinitely while they waited for bed space at the state hospital.

On Thursday, state officials took FOX 13 and others on a tour of the Utah State Hospital's forensic unit to talk about those changes. The forensic unit is where inmates deemed mentally unfit to face trial are taken to be restored to competency.

"They have turned the system around," Kristen Cox, the executive director of the Governor's Office of Management and Budget said of state hospital staffers.

FOX 13 first reported on the Disability Law Center's class action lawsuit against Utah's Department of Human Services two years ago. The nonprofit group that advocates for the disabled sued on behalf of dozens of inmates deemed incompetent to face trial, but languishing in county jails across the state.

Here was the problem: Someone gets arrested, goes before a judge and is found incompetent to face trial. They're supposed to be sent to the Utah State Hospital for treatment. The hospital is full. So they sit in jail for an indefinite amount of time, waiting to get in for treatment. In some cases, the Disability Law Center alleged, the wait was longer than the sentence they'd get if they were convicted of the crime they were charged with.

"We saw members of the class commit suicide while they were waiting for admission to the hospital," said Aaron Kinikini, the legal director of the Disability Law Center.

Dallas Earnshaw, the superintendent for the Utah State Hospital, said the system was overwhelmed. They saw a 500% increase in people needing treatment being referred by the courts.

"The demand for services started to increase at a rate we weren't prepared to handle," he told FOX 13.

The Utah State Legislature did appropriate about $5 million for new bedspace at the hospital, Cox said, but there were other internal reforms implemented.

"We have so many demands on dollars from the state hospital to our own corrections system to Medicaid. So I value this team for saying we’ll do the best with what we have," she said.

The state hospital started offering treatment in jail and referring some individuals for outpatient therapy. They've worked with the courts to reduce the lag time between hearings and treatment. The length of stay has dropped at the Utah State Hospital. Wait times to get into the hospital have dropped from six months to about 40 days. Under the court supervision, it will have to drop to 30 days by Sept. 30.

"Going from 60 to 30 is obviously a precipitous reduction," Kinikini said. "So I’m rooting for them. I’m hoping things go well, but we’re watching."

Next year, the federal court has ordered that wait time to drop to 14 days.

"We have the challenge to keep working on the issues and keep improving," Earnshaw said.

The settlement called for five years of court oversight. Kinikini said they will continue to watch the Utah State Hospital as it implements reforms, but he was happy with what he's seen so far.

"When people are seriously mentally ill and engaging in self harm, when people are seriously mentally ill untreated, that’s a very dangerous situation," he said. "The sooner they can get funneled into the appropriate level of treatment, the better. Lives are being saved."