Hundreds of cases on hold as defendants await state mental health assessment

Hundreds of cases on hold as defendants await state mental health assessment

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) – Hundreds of people are in limbo, awaiting what could be a critical factor in their criminal cases.

The Kentucky Correctional Psychiatric Center (KCPC) is responsible for conducting judge-issued orders for mental health examinations to establish jurisdiction in felony cases. However, their waiting list for assessments has been longer than normal for over a year.

As of Nov. 9, 302 people were waiting for a competency assessment or criminal liability assessment in 71 counties in Kentucky. The average wait for those on their list is 179 days. The shortest wait is zero days and the longest is 1031 days.

Defense attorney Dan Carman says some of his clients are among those waiting.

“One, we’ve been waiting for it for a while — actually, it was scheduled for this Friday,” Carman said.

Carman has worked in courthouses everywhere, defending clients for nearly 14 years. He says the current waiting list for psychiatric evaluations at KCPC has improved this year, but remains a clear problem.

“I noticed…and the delays became notorious,” Carman said.

Records show that around 287 people, or 95% of those on the list, were waiting behind bars at the time of the request.

A district judge, who asked to remain anonymous, told LEX 18 that some defendants decided to change their guilty pleas in order to spend less time in jail rather than wait.

“Then it comes down to knowing at that point – does this person understand what they are doing to plead,” they said.

The judge placed an order with KCPC for a review in March and was recently told that he would be reviewed in February 2023.

“Everyone is very frustrated,” Judge said. “It seems KCPC just doesn’t have the bandwidth to handle the volume. They do assessments with telehealth in prisons and inmates who are telehealth ready are treated in weeks rather than months, which is useful.”

Others have chosen to pay to have private appraisals done. However, KCPC assessments are seen in the court system as neutral, so defendants may still have to wait.

“We’re talking about people’s freedom, we’re talking about their criminal records, we’re talking about their money. We’re talking about community safety,” Carman said.

A defendant must understand the nature of the proceedings and the nature of the charges they face in order to be tried, according to state law.

Defense attorney John Landon has been representing clients for 15 years throughout Kentucky. He also sits on the NAMI Lexington Board of Directors due to his passion for helping people struggling with mental health issues.

Landon currently has four clients awaiting reviews.

“I think every judge, every prosecutor, every defense attorney knows full well the issues of this situation,” Landon said.

Why does this happen?

The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Human Services did not respond to this question as this story aired Thursday. However, LEX 18 received emails requesting waitlist information from the start of the pandemic until October 2022.

In an email dated January 6, 2022, the facility’s acting director, Koleen Slusher, said they were “battling staff shortages” and struggling to find a safe and secure space for assessments. . Other emails mentioned that telehealth was helping.

Other documents show the extent of the personnel problems facing the KCPC.

Last November, they had 91 vacancies. Most were in the clinical services unit, including 47 correctional officers, three charge nurses, three behavioral specialists, a medical director and seven registered nurses.

Solutions/What happens next?

For Landon, who has worked in the criminal and psychological field for years, wait lists are an indicator of an even bigger problem: how the criminal justice system handles mental health.

“It’s a system that I don’t think is working properly,” Landon said.

He thinks it starts with the initial arrest. Current law states that those suspected of suffering from a mental disorder or experiencing an episode must be taken to a local hospital to stabilize before being released. Instead, he feels like he’s been imprisoned or released without proper treatment and could potentially do more harm to himself or others.

This is an issue that is being discussed within the Kentucky Judicial Commission on Mental Health. It was formed in August to work to improve the way the courts deal with people involved in justice with needs related to mental health, addictions and intellectual disabilities.

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