Lawsuit Prompts State to Reopen Utah State Hospital Wing

Lawsuit Prompts State to Reopen Utah State Hospital Wing

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A lawsuit in behalf of four Utah County Jail inmates judged incompetent to stand trial and the possibility of a federal court action have prompted the state to reopen a wing at the Utah State Hospital.

The four inmates were being kept in jail while awaiting beds at the hospital. The suit filed in 4th District Court by public defenders alleges the state is violating their constitutional rights by refusing to treat them.

One of the four has since moved to the hospital. The others remain in jail and are among 16 on a waiting list.

The decision to reopen a 26-bed hospital unit closed by 2002 budget cuts was approved last week by Gov. Olene Walker.

If lawmakers do not allocate the $1.25 million needed to open the unit in December and operate it for the remaining seven months of fiscal 2005, the money will have to be taken from other programs, said Robin Arnold-Williams, executive director of the Utah Department of Human Services. Cuts could be made to child welfare, substance abuse and aging services.

"We know that there is a risk that the Legislature doesn't fund it all or doesn't fund it at all," Arnold-Williams said.

In fiscal 2006, $2.15 million will be needed.

Arnold-Williams said a potential federal court lawsuit could put the state hospital under the supervision of a federal judge. Oregon lost an nearly identical suit in 2002, she said.

In Oregon, treatment now has to be provided within seven days of an incompetency ruling.

To do that in Utah, the state would have to make the services provided at the state hospital available in county jails, which would millions more than reopening the closed unit, said Arnold-Williams.

Clinicians at the hospital believe the patients are becoming more seriously ill while they wait in jails with little or no treatment options.

Since the closure, average stays in the forensic unit have doubled to reach more than 200 days.

"There's a strong likelihood they have deteriorated," Arnold-Williams said. "It's clear they have not progressed."

In July 2002, legislators trimmed $1.7 million from the hospital's budget. The state closed one of forensic department's four units and planned to keep pace with demand by conducting court-ordered evaluations in county jails.

But the hospital soon was forced to create a waiting list of inmates who had been evaluated and then deemed by judges to be not competent to stand trial. Such defendants are sent to the forensic unit to be restored to competency.

The waiting list was attacked in August, when Utah County public defenders argued the state was violating the constitutional rights of Michael Kirsch, 28, who suffers from schizophrenia.

Kirsch was found incompetent to face assault and threat charges in July, but was not sent to the state hospital until Sept. 27.

His attorneys argued the delay violated his rights to a speedy trial and due process, and subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment.

The attorneys have filed similar petitions for three other inmates:

They are George Monfort, 46, charged with attempted aggravated murder and other offenses; Ariel Quintana-Araiza, charged with burglary; and Brooke White, 25, charged with assault.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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