LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Inmates with mental health issues are waiting months to get the medication and treatment they need to be deemed competent to assist in their own defense because a state hospital is so overtaxed.
Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister said the situation is so bad that the case of one man with severe mental health issues took six years to make it through the court system. The man ultimately was sentenced to 16 months - less than a quarter of the amount of time he had been incarcerated, the Lawrence Journal-World reported.
Armbrister said the case encapsulates the "dark underbelly" of the state's criminal justice system, which he believes fails to properly account for the mental health of those who are held in jail prior to conviction.
A large part of the reason that his case took so long was a significant backlog of inmates ordered to receive mental health treatment at the Larned State Hospital in Pawnee County. The backlog has led to many inmates spending months, if not years, behind bars even though they haven't been convicted of a crime.
Armbrister said he believes the state must do more to fix the problem.
"I firmly believe the state of Kansas needs to build another state hospital, somewhere in the (Kansas City) metro area," he said. "Larned is basically being swamped."
The hospital's backlog is an issue that affects not only Douglas County, but the entire state.
The state hospital's waiting list includes 157 male inmates and 14 female inmates, according to data provided by the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, which oversees the hospital. For the male inmates, the average wait time is 171 days - or close to six months - KDADS spokeswoman Cara Sloan-Ramos told the Journal-World in an email.
But Sloan-Ramos said the hospital is working to provide mobile services for competency treatment. She said it is specifically working with Sedgwick and Shawnee counties - home to Wichita and Topeka, respectively - to identify offenders who meet criteria to receive services in a jail setting rather than at the state hospital.
Whether that option could help Douglas County inmates remains to be seen. One inmate from the county has been on the hospital's waiting list for almost a full year, but 18 people are still ahead of him.
Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez said the backlog is a longstanding problem that "absolutely negatively impacts the rights" of inmates. She said one of the only options her office has is to dismiss cases, which often is not appropriate.