Suit claims state not providing treatment for criminally insane

A group of civil rights lawyers filed on Thursday a federal lawsuit against the state claiming it is unconstitutionally slow when it comes to transferring mentally ill people out of parish prisons and into a state mental health facility after they’ve been found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity.

The suit, filed in Louisiana’s Middle District against the state Department of Health and Hospitals, aims to provide people found not guilty by reason of insanity the treatment ordered by the court — treatment that generally cannot be properly administered in city or parish jails, said Katie Schwartzmann, an attorney with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans, which was joined by attorneys from the Advocacy Center in filing the suit.

“It’s just better for everybody if (people found not guilty by reason of insanity) can be sent to the state hospital,” Schwartzmann said, referring to the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System, a state mental facility in Jackson where the criminally insane are housed and treated.

The Department of Health and Hospitals does not comment on pending litigation, a department spokeswoman said.

“This is an important issue,” Ronald K. Lospennato, an attorney with the Advocacy Center, which is also involved in the suit, said. “It’s really a shame that they keep people in prison in these situations where they need mental health treatment.”

The Advocacy Center filed a lawsuit similar in nature several years ago that resulted in a judge ordering the state to free up beds at the Jackson facility for mentally ill people found incompetent to stand trial without receiving some mental health treatment beforehand.

In a statement, the attorneys said once someone is found not guilty by reason of insanity, the person is supposed to either be released or sent to a mental health facility for treatment. It’s the state’s responsibility to make sure that happens, the attorneys said.

“The state is not living up to its obligation, and people are sitting in our local jails unnecessarily and illegally,” Schwartzmann said. “In addition to being illegal, this is bad public policy and expensive for taxpayers, because people are warehoused for months on end, often in horrible conditions.”

Six mentally ill men are listed as plaintiffs in the suit, although their attorneys have asked a judge to approve their request to raise the suit to class-action status. Of the six plaintiffs identified, five are being housed at the Jefferson Parish Correctional Facility, while one is incarcerated at the St. Tammany Parish Jail.

Some of the men have long histories of mental illness, the suit says, and diagnoses range from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder to delusional disorder. Attempts to reach their family members Thursday were unsuccessful.

The charges faced by the men ranged on the severity spectrum. Among the charges on which the men were found not guilty by reason of insanity were theft of a motor vehicle, obscenity, theft, battery on a correctional facility employee, aggravated battery and aggravated arson, the suit says.

In a court filing requesting the judge approve the suit to one of class action status, the civil rights attorneys say there are many other people besides the six named in the suit who have spent months — and in at least one case nearly two years — waiting to be transferred to the Jackson facility after being found not guilty by reason of insanity.

“From DHH’s data, it appears that the minimum wait time for a (not guilty by reason of insanity) commitment is 6-8 months,” the suit says.

In all, at least 25 people were found not guilty by reason of insanity statewide in the past year, the suit says, with their wait times for transfer ranging from one month to the case where one person waited nearly two years.

The allegedly long wait times provides an unnecessary burden on local jails, Schwartzmann, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said.

“It is a strain on their resources and their personnel and everything else,” she said.

Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter @_BenWallace.