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State appeals judge's order to treat mentally ill prisoners 


State officials now say they can't comply with a court order filed earlier this year forcing Texas to deal with the nagging problem of mentally ill defendants clogging country jails, reports the Austin American-Statesman.

With a psychiatric hospital system bursting at the seams, and the state's dismal record of funding mental health care services, county jails have become Texas' treatment of choice for offenders with such severe mental illness they've been declared incompetent by a judge and deemed unable to take part in their own defense – so-called “forensic commitments.” Earlier this year, Bexar County jail medical director Martha Rodriguez told the Current, “Our physicians here have even called [the jail] like a little mini state hospital,” saying the lockup's nearly 281 mental health beds are always at capacity.

In 2007, Disability Rights Texas, a federally funded organization that advocates for those with disabilities and mental illness, sued the state saying Texas' maxed-out state hospital system left mentally ill defendants to languish for months inside county jails ill equipped to treat them. In late January, Austin-based State District Judge Orlinda Naranjo agreed, calling the current system unconstitutional (defendants wait on average six months in jail before getting treatment in a state hospital, she noted), and ordered DSHS to place all current forensic commitments in state hospitals by June 1. After that, Naranjo's ruling would require the state to start treating defendants in state hospitals within 21 days of a judge's incompetency order.

This month, according to the Statesman, the state Attorney General's office filed a motion asking Naranjo to review the decision and appealed the ruling to the Texas Third Court of Appeals. The state says it doesn't have enough space, staff, or cash to comply, calling the ruling “physically, fiscally and logistically impossible.” According to the state, it could cost between $39 and $55.2 million to bring the state hospital system up to Judge Naranjo's standard.

Beth Mitchell, and attorney with Disability Rights Texas, told the Statesman, “[M]oney cannot be the reason to let people languish in jails where they don't get treatment.”

-- Michael Barajas, [email protected]


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