Two state legislators say they will introduce bills that make it clear the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is required to move quickly and obey court orders to accept mentally incompetent defendants who are awaiting trial.
Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, and Del. Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery County and vice chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, said they expect the General Assembly to clarify a decades-old law to require the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to immediately place defendants deemed incompetent in state psychiatric hospitals. The effort comes in the wake of concerns raised by judges who say the department is ignoring the orders and which successfully argued in Baltimore City Circuit Court earlier this month that it was under no obligation to follow the orders immediately.
“I think the immediate solution is that somehow the message has to get across to DHMH, which I think they are hearing, that when a court issues an order — just like a jail can’t refuse to take someone — neither can DHMH,” said Dumais.
Zirkin, who along with Dumais participated in a hearing on the issue last week, agreed.
“One thing is clear from all of this: If a judge signs an order, you must — must — do it,” Zirkin said. “The department has to do what the judges are saying. What’s going to have to happen is that the statute will have to change that it’s immediate so when a judge signs an order it has to be complied with.”
Recent actions by the department to resolve a problem that dates back at least a decade, as well as series of lawsuits in recent months, has drawn the attention of the judiciary and legislature.
In the last three months, the state has reduced the number of criminal defendants waiting for court-ordered psychological evaluations for possible commitment from around 90 in May to about a dozen as of last week.
And while Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Van T. Mitchell has received high marks from lawmakers and judges for his candor and effort to resolve the issue, many remain concerned.
Nearly two weeks ago, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge dismissed a class-action suit after the department argued that current state law was vague and didn’t require it to immediately follow the court’s commitment orders.
District Court Chief Judge John Morrissey said a letter from DHMH “really kind of sent a panic through the judiciary … that DHMH would no longer follow the orders of the courts.”
In April, Mitchell sent a letter to Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge Sheila Rene Tillerson Adams in which he described the situation as “a crisis within the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that may prevent us from responding expeditiously to court requirements.”
Baltimore City District Court Judge George Lipman said he believed legislators always meant for the department to be required to comply with court orders. He called on the General Assembly to strengthen the language.
A department spokeswoman was not immediately available for comment.
Zirkin said the issue in many ways is similar to efforts to expedite court orders to move inmates into drug treatment. In the end, the legislature tightened the law to require compliance within 21 days of the order.
Zirkin proposed “a much shorter” timeline for transferring defendants to state hospitals for psychiatric treatment.
“We’re talking a couple of days,” Zirkin said. “Three days, no more than four days. The legislative intent is that this is supposed to be immediate. They’re not supposed to go back to jail. We’re clearly going to have to change the statute. That’s one thing I heard loud and clear.”