News Article Details

State gives Northampton County money to treat mentally ill inmates

Morning Call - 9/22/2018

Sept. 22--Northampton County will add treatment beds for the severely mentally ill who wind up in jail, under state funding announced Friday after years of complaints that inmates are being kept behind bars while waiting for the help they need.

The $659,000 grant will allow Northampton County to open an eight-bed mental health center in the community that is capable of taking in defendants who require treatment before their cases can proceed to trial. The effort will permit the county to transfer those defendants out of jail, while bypassing the state's mental hospitals, where waiting lists for such beds may be the worst in the nation.

"These funds will be used to serve individuals with serious mental illness and complex behavioral needs," County Executive Lamont McClure said. "By expanding available beds and treatment options, we'll be able to keep people from languishing in the county prison system."

The funds are being provided as part of a settlement between the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the state in 2015, calling the delays in treatment "an embarrassment to civilized society." The ACLU highlighted one inmate in Philadelphia who took his own life, and another who was murdered in jail while waiting for a bed.

The grant also will fund other Northampton County programs meant to help the mentally ill in the justice system: from housing for those re-entering society from jail, to additional staff trained to deal with the unique challenges of mental illness and crime.

The money comes as the state has twice committed in federal court to doing better, acknowledging the waits for forensic beds were unjustifiable and agreeing to pour resources into the mental health system. Yet advocates have charged there have been few gains, with inmates in eastern Pennsylvania still waiting nine to 10 months for openings at Norristown State Hospital, one of two state hospitals equipped to treat those declared incompetent to face trial.

Northampton County said it plans to have the eight-bed facility open by July, and will seek prospective operators through the bidding process. The center will offer treatment to defendants whose competency needs to be restored. The plan, the county said, is to "reduce unnecessary incarceration."

Brian Watson, deputy administrator of the county's Mental Health Division, said counties across the state are struggling to address the rise of the mentally ill in jail.

"This will give us a lot more resources so that first of all, people aren't going to jail as much, but secondly, that if they do, they are getting out quicker," Watson said.

Twice, The Morning Call spotlighted Northampton County Jail inmates awaiting competency treatment.

Travis J. Kutz, a homeless man charged with breaking into his father's Bangor home to steal food, was imprisoned for more than 18 months before he received a bed at Norristown in 2016. Since then, the charges against him were dropped.

In August, Crystal DeBerry of Easton pleaded guilty but mentally ill to assault charges and received a time-served sentence. She had been jailed since January 2017 waiting for a bed at Norristown.

Norristown covers 19 counties with 187 forensic beds -- including 50 added in January. Torrance State Hospital in Westmoreland County has 100 beds and serves the central and western parts of the state.

Together, the two hospitals had waiting lists of 183 inmates as of July. That compared with a waiting list of 216 when the state first committed new resources to the system.

riley.yates@mcall.com

610-554-8245

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