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Advocates for the mentally ill in several states have filed lawsuits and other court actions in recent months on behalf of inmates who failed to receive treatment for their illnesses because they sat in jail for too long. Some of the suits have been filed on behalf of mentally ill defendants waiting for evaluations to determine whether they are competent to stand trial. Others are filed for inmates who have been found incompetent but are awaiting treatment. In both instances, the suits claim that the inmates were deprived of their constitutional right to treatment at state hospitals or other mental health facilities. The suits echo a 2003 ruling in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that ordered state officials to transfer inmates in similar circumstances out of jail within seven days. Oregon Advocacy Center v. Mink, 322 F.3d 1101 (9th Cir. 2003). In Texas, a nonprofit group filed a lawsuit in February against officials of the Texas Department of State Health Services on behalf of mentally incompetent inmates who are waiting to be transferred. Michael Fields v. David L. Lakey, No. C-1-CV-07-001182 (Travis Co., Texas, Dist. Ct.). Beth Mitchell, senior managing attorney at Advocacy Inc., the nonprofit group that filed the suit, said her Texas case is the “exact same case and the exact same issues” as those in the 9th Circuit’s ruling. As of January 2007, about 100 inmates were waiting in jail rather than being admitted to a mental health facility, according to the suit. “We don’t believe you can warehouse somebody in jail when the whole purpose behind their detention is treatment, and they’re not getting that treatment,” Mitchell said. Doug McBride, a Department of State Health Services spokesman, declined to comment. Colorado settlement In Colorado, the state Department of Human Services agreed last month to a court settlement that would require inmates to be transferred to mental health facilities within 28 days after a judge’s order. The settlement arose after a Colorado state trial court judge issued contempt citations against the former executive director of the Department of Human Services and the superintendent of the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo for failing to transfer a mentally incompetent inmate who spent months in jail. People of the State of Colorado v. Eugene L. Zuniga, No. 06 CR 999 (Denver Co., Colo., Dist. Ct.). At that time, about 80 inmates were waiting in jail for admission into hospitals. “It’s unconstitutional and inhumane � individuals being in jail without any treatment at all,” said Iris Eytan, a lawyer at Denver-based Reilly Pozner & Connelly who was appointed special counsel to prosecute the contempt action. Liz McDonough, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, said, “We simply did not have the capacity for the numbers of evaluations and restorations that were being ordered.” In December, the department received $1.6 million in emergency funding for a 20-bed unit. A high security facility is scheduled to open in 2009. Florida fight In Florida, several public defenders filed writs and other court actions against state officials after their clients remained in jail for more than the 15 days required under state law. Douglas Brawley, chief assistant public defender in Broward County in charge of mental health, said the court actions began after the Florida Department of Children and Families defied court orders. At that time, the DCF had 300 people on a waiting list to be transferred, most of whom had been in jail for more than 15 days, he said. In November, a Pinellas County judge issued a contempt citation and an $80,000 fine against the former secretary of the DCF for disobeying court orders. The secretary later resigned. Public defenders for inmates in other counties also sought contempt actions. In September, Norman Kent, a lawyer at Kent & Cormican in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who represented two inmates in Miami-Dade County, filed a class action against state officials. Jones v. Board of County, No. 1:06-cv-22449 ( S.D. Fla.). Kent dropped the case after a December appellate ruling in a separate public defender’s court action ordered state officials to transfer the inmates out of jail. Calls to the DCF were not returned.

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