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Courts keeping mentally ill inmates longer than law allows, audit claims

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Posted at 4:49 PM, Oct 21, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-21 20:09:21-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- An audit of the Utah State Hospital has found that patients undergoing mental competency evaluations have been kept much longer than state law allows.

The revelation was in an audit of Utah's Department of Human Services budget that was presented to the Utah State Legislature's Audit Subcommittee on Tuesday. It found that over the past five years, 64 patients had been kept for more than the state maximum one year stay.

"The longest stay was just over two-and-a-half years," the audit said.

Read the audit here:

Under Utah law, the state hospital's forensic program can keep people accused of third-degree felonies and misdemeanors for up to a year. Capital murder and first- and second-degree felonies can be kept up to 18 months, at which point a judge must review it.

The audit noted that what happens with a defendant "is ultimately the judge's decision."

"I just have a hard time understanding how a court can just violate the law," House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, asked during a hearing on the audit.  "I mean, are the attorneys for the people being evaluated ... are they not concerned about this taking so long?"

"They are, and we're discussion with them all the time," replied Utah State Hospital Superintendent Dallas Earnshaw. "In actuality, these are very rare cases."

Earnshaw noted "it's complicated," balancing the needs of patients with public safety and legal statute.

Kent Hart, the executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told FOX 13 he believed judges were acting with the best intentions -- but there is concern that people's constitutional rights are being violated.

"I think judges, out of an abundance of caution, are trying to protect the public," he said. "But they are violating the rights of people presumed to be innocent."

Hart said the legislature has an opportunity to enact meaningful changes to protect the rights of mentally ill criminal defendants. At the legislative committee, there was discussion about beginning competency evaluations in jails or having misdemeanor offenders do some kind of outpatient evaluations.

"Rather than spend money for more beds, we're trying to look at more cost-effective measures reaching out to these individuals while they're waiting to come into the hospital," Earnshaw said.

The audit was passed out of committee for the legislature to consider in the January session. In a statement, the Administrative Office of the Utah State Courts insisted that "any extended stay is not for lack of attention."

Read the statement from the Utah State Courts here:

As Dallas Earnshaw stated today, this is not a black and white issue, but can be very complicated. Judges are charged with protecting public safety. They must balance the rights of a defendant while protecting the public. For the few cases that do overstay the presumptive time limit, it usually is because the court is allowing the prosecutor time to file civil commitment charges or for mental health professionals to find an alternative placement for the defendant. Any extended stay is not for lack of attention.