Alaska’s system for evaluating mentally ill defendants hits the breaking point

Anchorage Daily News – Alaska’s system for dealing with seriously mentally ill criminal defendants has been pushed to its breaking point by an increasing number of defendants entering the system combined with a severely limited capacity to treat them at the state’s only psychiatric hospital — which was in such disarray that state officials in February turned it over to a controversial private company to manage.

Lawmakers and officials agree something has to change — soon.

People gripped with psychosis are spending weeks and months in legal limbo, waiting just to be seen by a doctor who will determine if they are competent to stand trial, according to records and accounts from attorneys and state officials and family members of defendants.

Sometimes the wait is longer than any sentence they’d face for their charges.

Those found “incompetent,” or too mentally ill to proceed, must again wait for one of just ten beds for a chance to be “restored” to competency through medication and treatment at API.

As of December 2018, the average wait for someone to go from court order for evaluation to a forensic bed at API was just under six months, according to an analysis by Anchorage consulting firm Agnew Beck.

[Federal investigators found more ‘substantial deficiencies’ at API than at any other US hospital last year]

The gridlock in Alaska’s competency restoration system is so bad that Department of Health and Social Services deputy commissioner Albert Wall told lawmakers he was losing sleep over it at a Feb. 13 legislative hearing in Juneau.

“It keeps me up at night,” he said.

On that day, the wait list for a mentally ill defendant to get an initial evaluation was 54 people, Wall told the lawmakers. There were 28 people in line for forensic restoration beds available at API.

“It is untenable for we as a state to continue in this fashion,” Wall said.

Three weeks later, on Thursday, the numbers had barely budged, with 53 people in line for evaluations and 27 waiting for a bed at API.

Litigation challenging the long wait times is working its way through the court system.

In October, the Alaska Public Defender Agency filed a motion, called a writ of habeas corpus, that asks the court to either make the state provide the mental health services required by law in a timely fashion or let the defendants out of jail.

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