On Monday attorneys announced a settlement in a class action lawsuit between the Disability Law Center and the Utah Department of Human Services. The plaintiffs wanted to decrease the number of mentally ill people who are stuck in jail awaiting trial.
If the settlement is approved in federal court it will ensure $3 million is appropriated to a mental health treatment facility in the Salt Lake County jail.
Right now there’s a backlog of people with mental illness who are in county jails but need a specific treatment before going to court.
"These are folks who suffer from severe mental illness and are in jail, presumably innocent, awaiting trial, but can’t get to trial due to their mental illness," says Erin Sullivan, a staff attorney at the Disability Law Center.
Before going to trial, these individuals need what’s called forensic competency restoration. That means they need to be deemed competent to participate in their own trial, to make sure they understand their case and why they’re there.
Right now the Utah State Hospital provides that service. But the hospital can only serve 100 people.
Ann Silverberg Williamson is the Executive Director of Utah’s Department of Human Services, the department that manages the hospital. She says there are just too many people in jail with mental health needs.
"Throughout the years the demand for the services continued to increase beyond that identified capacity," Williamson says.
According to a statement about the settlement, wait times in recent years have taken three to six months with an 80-person backlog. In the meantime those individuals remain in jail.
The new jail unit is intended to provide forensic competency restoration within 60 days initially. In a year-and-a-half they hope to speed that up to two weeks.
The settlement is expected to be approved. The jail unit is scheduled to start operating this September.