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Baltimore judge orders DHMH to provide plan to treat incompetent, dangerous defendants

Officials from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene have been ordered by a judge to present a plan later this month on admitting and treating criminal defendants who have been found incompetent to stand trial.

Baltimore City District Judge George Lipman issued the order Monday related to 17 defendants who were found, between March 1 and May 31, to be dangerous and incompetent to stand trial. Among those defendants were 11 who spent between 21 and 37 days in the Baltimore City Detention Center despite being found unable to understand the charges against them or participate in their own defense.

Individuals not convicted of a crime that have been determined to be incompetent cannot be held in a jail. State officials have upped efforts in the last year to resolve the ongoing shortage of treatment beds at state hospitals but a deficit and a waiting list remain.

Lipman, in his order, wrote that the department “has not succeeded in implementing a workable plan to assure statutorily mandated admissions to its hospitals. The actions of DHMH to date have been tentative in the face of this long-building deficit. Staff, beds, and concrete incentives to community providers are needed.

“However,” he continued, “the illegal detention of these 17 defendants in the Baltimore City Detention Center has been proximately caused by the failure of DHMH to proactively address longstanding needs. The present bed delay ‘crisis’ has been foreseeable for many years. DHMH steadily reduced capacity while the demand for forensic beds has remained constant.”

Lipman ordered the department to present just such a plan during a June 26 hearing.

A spokesman for the department Tuesday said state officials have made substantial headway in solving the problem.

“In the past year, the department has made significant progress in reducing the backlog  for forensic patient admissions,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to partner with the courts as we seek to reduce the backlog further.”

The order comes nine months after District Court Chief Judge John Morrissey told a legislative panel that the courts would start tracking commitment issues and related delays in admission to state forensic facilities.

Concerns about the delays date back a decade and took on a new importance last year when then-department Secretary Van T. Mitchell appeared in court twice to face contempt charges filed by public defenders.

In both cases, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Gale E. Rasin dismissed the charges, calling Mitchell 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 at the time, adding that Mitchell had gone “above and beyond” the role of a secretary.

But Rasin, in her courtroom remarks, warned of a “nightmare scenario” where she or another judge might be forced to release someone charged with murder because they were found incompetent and held illegally in jail.

She said at times Mitchell’s testimony made him sound more like a construction project manager than the head of one of the largest state government departments.

Mitchell ultimately resigned in December under unexplained circumstances that are not believed to be related to the contempt complaints.

Lipman, in his ruling Monday, criticized the department’s response last year, saying it “took tentative steps to short admission delays. The partial actions taken in 2017 have been of limited utility. Now, increasing numbers of seriously ill and clearly incompetent defendants are wrongfully confined in jail rather than promptly undergoing competency restoration in the legislatively mandated setting: a DHMH designated hospital.”

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