Long waitlist for incompetent defendants to stand trial at Texas mental health hospitals

Long waitlist for incompetent defendants to stand trial at Texas mental health hospitals
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DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) Court records show Portia Odufuwa, accused of firing a gun inside a Dallas Love Field terminal this week, has a history of being deemed incompetent to stand trial on prior criminal charges because of mental health issues.

Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot said Friday once Odufuwa is officially charged in the airport case, authorities will once again have to determine whether she’s able to stand trial. “If she isn’t competent to stand trial, then we start right back over, except this time with a felony that involves violence. She’ll have to wait for those types of beds, the high-risk beds at the state hospitals. “

The problem is the Texas Health and Human Services Commission says as of July 26, there’s a wait list of nearly 2,500 for state mental health hospital beds, where defendants deemed incompetent to stand trial can receive treatment, become stabilized and competent to stand trial.

“The bottom line is because there’s a long wait for hospital beds for people like her, she’s never really received any services.”

Alyse Ferguson, Chief Attorney for the Collin County Mental Health Managed Counsel, said because of the waitlist, defendants with misdemeanor crimes time out of the system without receiving state hospital treatment.

Those facing felony charges must remain in county jails. “It’s going to be over a two year wait at best for them to get a state hospital bed. So if they’re not treated in the jail, if they’re just sitting on the waitlist, they’re potentially getting other incidents in the jail where they’re getting other charges, prolonging their stay and further causing harm to themselves or others.”

A spokeswoman with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission said the agency has a variety of initiatives working with counties to help ease the burden of the large waitlist.

During the past five years in Collin County, Ferguson said judges have ordered defendants on the waitlist to be medicated in jail so they can be stabilized and ultimately deemed competent to stand trial.

So far this year, she said, 22 defendants have been stabilized and become competent.

That’s 75% of those cases.

“We have saved these individuals from sitting in our county jail, most of them saved about nine months off of time just sitting waiting. So it not only benefits the individual, but it certainly helps to prevent clogging the system and excessive jail populations.”

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In Dallas County, District Attorney Creuzot said they’ve also had judges issue medication orders for some defendants on the waitlist.

He said his office is trying to prevent people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.

Creuzot recently opened the Dallas County Deflection Center which helps the homeless or mentally ill charged with low-level crimes avoid jail and receive treatment they need.

His office also gave the Dallas Police Department $250,000 to expand the Right Care program, where special teams respond to people having a mental health crisis.

Creuzot also gave the cities of Addison, Carrollton, Coppell, and Farmers Branch a total of $200,000 to help pay for an assessment on homelessness and mental health in their cities.

He said, “What we’re trying to do once again, is keep these people from coming to jail, but on the other hand, provide services so we can make their lives better, make the community safer, and of course save tax dollars . That’s the goal of that project.”

Last month, Creuzot asked Dallas County Commissioners to expand the number of mental health prosecutors in his office.

Ferguson said she also works closely with police departments in Collin County. “I work with the CIT officers in each department in our county, and we meet regularly we talk, we communicate, if an officer brings somebody into our jail, and they’ve identified some mental health issues, they immediately notify us and so that we’re able to take action from the time they walk in the door. We have some great officers that will go out and make contact with people, even before an arrest or to circumvent an arrest by trying to get them connected.”

Ferguson, Creuzot, and others in the criminal justice system have told CBS 11 the state legislature needs to spend more money on mental health to help address the problem.

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