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Md. Senate set to review mental health care for criminal defendants

Sen. Robert A. "Bobby" Zirkin, chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. (File / The Daily Record)

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. (File / The Daily Record)

State legislators for three committees will meet next week to seek a solution to a growing problem in Maryland involving criminal defendants needing psychological evaluations and treatment that one judge has warned could result in the release of people charged with murder.

“This is a long-standing problem that needs to be addressed,” said Sen. Robert A. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. “This is a constitutional issue. It’s not a new problem.”

Members of three Senate committees — Judiciary, Budget, and Taxation and Finance — are scheduled to meet Tuesday to review how to provide more mental health services for those who are deemed not competent or require psychological evaluation.

Zirkin said the focus of the meeting will be to find a solution to the problem and figure out how to pay for the necessary resources.

“It’s my goal to get it fixed this session,” Zirkin said.

Maryland courts have held that criminal defendants who are ordered to receive psychological evaluations and treatment must be moved from a jail cell to a psychiatric facility.

“This is definitely not an exercise in pointing fingers in my committee,” Zirkin said. “With all the high-profile things going on, there is definitely some urgency to it. It’s a matter of priorities and resources. The law is clearly in place. It’s not squishy language.”

The issue has taken on greater importance in recent weeks with state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Van T. Mitchell ordered to appear in a Baltimore City Circuit Court in two separate contempt of court proceedings.

In each case, defense attorneys asked the court to gt involved in getting mental health evaluations and treatment that had been ordered by judges but had not yet been provided to criminal defendants. Ultimately, the cases were dismissed because the defendants were moved to state hospitals and because Judge Gale E. Rasin said she believed Mitchell was forthright in his explanation of the problem and his attempts to deal with it.

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

In one instance, Rasin noted that Mitchell’s description of efforts to resolve the lack of available space for treatment, including renovation projects, made him sound more like a construction manager than the head of a state department.

Rasin told Mitchell of 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, 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. He announced the creation of a working group to begin looking at the lack of beds.

Mitchell also acknowledged in a letter to a Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge that he “made a mistake” in not seeking additional funds before the end of the 2015 legislative session. He told Rasin last month that he would seek $8 million in additional funding from Gov. Larry Hogan to cover some of the costs incurred so far this year.

Zirkin said there is no way to immediately know what the final costs will be to bring the state into compliance with the law but said the state may be able to offset some costs with savings anticipated with recent Justice Reinvestment legislation passed earlier this year. Legislators and advocates hope to save money spent on incarceration with a number of reforms meant to provide more additions treatment and job training.

“It’s a legal and constitutional requirement to do this,” Zirkin said. “Even if you don’t save money with (Justice Reinvestment), we still have to do this.”