State officials have asked a federal judge in New Orleans to lift a 2011 court settlement that was intended to help Louisiana inmates who are deemed incompetent to stand trial to receive faster placement at the state mental health facility in Jackson, instead of languishing for months in parish jails without adequate treatment.
Attorneys for the Department of Health and Hospitals filed court papers contending the state has “more than substantially complied” with the terms of the consent decree, which set deadlines for so-called patient detainees — inmates unable to assist in their own defense — to be transferred to the Feliciana Forensic Facility within 30 days of being judicially committed.
The state’s lawyers said the consent decree was supposed to end three years after it took effect — the third anniversary passed this summer — and should be dismissed after U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance determines whether the state has held up its end of the bargain.
A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Wednesday morning in Vance’s courtroom.
The plaintiffs in the litigation, the nonprofit Advocacy Center, which seeks to protect the rights of people with mental and physical disabilities, said last week they will not oppose ending the consent decree and its monthly reporting requirements. They acknowledged that state health officials have made significant strides since the days when 150 or more inmates would be waiting at any given time to be admitted to Feliciana.
“Defendants’ 38 monthly reports show that in the last three years, with few exceptions, all detainees found incompetent to stand trial who were supposed to be admitted for inpatient treatment have been admitted to Feliciana within 30 days of their order of commitment,” Nell Hahn, an Advocacy Center attorney, wrote in a court filing. “Plaintiffs hope that there will be no backsliding once the consent decree and its reporting obligations end.”
Hahn made clear that her organization intends to continue monitoring wait times, alluding to a “troubling trend” that suggested the state “may soon fail to be in substantial compliance with the terms of the consent decree.” As commitment orders have risen, she wrote, the number of inmates waiting for admission to the mental health facility has “grown from four or five in the first few reporting months to 18-20 in recent months.”
The consent decree stemmed from a lawsuit filed in 2010 on behalf of Charrie Butler, whose teenage son was jailed in New Orleans on armed robbery and attempted first-degree murder charges. The boy, identified in court records as W.B., reported being treated “terribly” in Orleans Parish Prison, mostly because “little men” were visiting him in his sleep, punching him and vowing to return before running away. He was deemed incompetent to stand trial and ordered to receive restorative treatment at Feliciana, but his transfer did not occur for several months.
The lawsuit pointed to dozens of patient detainees whose constitutional rights were being violated through similarly inordinate delays, stalling their court proceedings indefinitely. “These individuals sit in prison,” the lawsuit said, “as if convicted on charges for which they only stand accused.”
Hahn wrote in her filing last week that the state had blamed the delays in some cases on incomplete paperwork, “but (other inmates) were simply waiting because the department lacked sufficient capacity to admit them.”
The case culminated in April 2011 in a consent decree in which the state agreed to a list of deadlines involving the transfer and care of patient detainees. It also agreed to pay $260,000 to the plaintiffs in attorneys’ fees and costs.
Since then, the state contracted with LSU to conduct a flow study to help alleviate backup at its mental health facility, said Kathy Kliebert, the state Department of Health and Hospitals secretary.
“We recognized this was an issue that we needed to address,” Kliebert said in a telephone interview. “We had to come up with some new models of service, offering some community models to allow those individuals that really didn’t need such a secure setting, for them to be able to be served in the community and more independently.”
Kliebert said the state also freed up resources at Feliciana by opening a secure forensic unit for “individuals that didn’t need all the medical services that we were offering for everybody at (the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System).”
Even as the state is coming out from under the consent decree, however, a new class-action lawsuit is pending in federal court in Baton Rouge that claims the state is taking far too long to transfer inmates to Feliciana who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity.
That lawsuit, filed last month by the Advocacy Center and the MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans, alleges there are “scores of individuals throughout the state of Louisiana who have been or will be found (not guilty by reason of insanity) and committed to a mental health facility, but who remain or will remain incarcerated in a parish jail, often for months at a time.”
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