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Judge dismisses contempt proceedings against Md. department secretary

Van Mitchell. (Maryland State Archives photo)

Van Mitchell. (Maryland State Archives photo)

A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge dismissed Thursday contempt proceedings against the secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene related to three new cases in which inmates who were ordered into state mental health facilities instead were held in jails.

Judge Gale E. Rasin, in dismissing the cases, was critical of Van T. Mitchell’s staff but said she believed Mitchell was forthright with her and was “working in a good-faith effort” to correct the problem of too few beds and inadequate staffing.

“This is the first official, and he’s the man at the top, to admit there is a crisis,” Rasin said, adding that Mitchell had gone “above and beyond” the role of a secretary.

The retired judge also noted that at times his testimony sounded like he was a construction manager as he ticked off renovation projects at the state hospitals.

Thursday was the second time in less than a month Mitchell has appeared before Rasin to address the lack of beds and staffing. The judge previously dismissed four other cases in which people arrested were ordered to have competency evaluations performed by the department and be transferred to state hospitals such as Clifton T. Perkins, Spring Grove or Springfield, only to be told there was no space available.

Assistant Maryland Public Defender Mary J. Pizzo said she wasn’t seeking jail time for Mitchell but had hoped for court-mandated timelines for transferring inmates who have been ordered into state hospitals to be transferred from detention centers and state correctional facilities. The three cases she handled Thursday involved defendants who waited 30 days or more to be transferred to a state hospital, including one who was declared incompetent to stand trial after being arrested on a nearly 40-year-old murder charge.

But Rasin dismissed the cases, noting that the state health department had moved the defendants into state hospitals, making the request technically moot.

“There are times when you can still hold somebody in contempt and if it seems technically moot…if it’s something that is an ongoing issue that is evading review because of the ongoing sort of systemic nature of it,” said Pizzo.

‘Nightmare scenario’

Mitchell, in a letter earlier this year to a Prince George’s County judge, referred to the situation as a crisis, albeit one he inherited from a previous administration, and announced the creation of a working group to begin looking at the lack of beds.

That work group concluded a series of public hearings and released a draft report Aug. 4 with 19 recommendations. Some of the recommendations, including the addition of 24 beds to relieve the backlog of court-ordered cases, are meant to go into effect in the near future following the release of a final draft of the report at the end of the month.

Mitchell told Rasin on Thursday his department was in the midst of renovating buildings to add additional capacity, though not initially enough to handle the more than six dozen inmates estimated to be awaiting placement in a state facility, and is seeking to hire additional staff.

But Rasin did express concern with Mitchell’s staff, saying they had not served him well in the types of information they were providing to him. She also outlined what she called her “nightmare scenario” in which she or another judge might one day be forced to release a defendant because the state had not complied with a commitment or competency evaluation order.

“I’m having trouble wrapping my head around that possibility and what I, as a judge, would do,” Rasin said. “Do you understand that this has implications for you and your department if someone charged with murder is released from jail?”

Mitchell said he would be seeking an additional $8 million in deficiency funds from the governor to cover the initial costs.

“I don’t know what else to say or do because this could have been fixed a long time ago,” Mitchell said.