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Lacking Mental Health Aid, NC Jails Face 'Capacity Crisis'

Across North Carolina, more than 200 people with serious mental illnesses are waiting in jail for a bed in a state psychiatric hospital before their criminal cases can proceed, News From The States reports. “Many people do sit months and months, over a year, not getting the treatment that they need,” said Dr. Robert Cochrane, the statewide director of the Forensic Services Division of State-Operated Healthcare Facilities at the Department of Health and Human Services. “And the jails… just don’t have the resources. You know, they’re not hospitals, they’re not clinics.” Cochrane was a panelist on a virtual discussion Wednesday about the ways the criminal justice and mental health care systems fail those with serious mental illnesses who wind up in jail. Much of the conversation was based on reporting for an 11-part series by Charlotte’s WFAE, including a documentary titled Fractured, about the long waits endured by those deemed unable to stand trial before they can receive mental health treatment.

“We refer to it as the ‘competency crisis’ or the ‘capacity crisis,'” said Dr. Debra Pinals, a professor at the University of Michigan law and medical schools. “And everywhere, pretty much, in the country, there are challenges with people with mental illness sitting in jails.” The discussion, hosted by the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law and Frontline PBS, examined how the state and nation got to this point. Pinals said the reasoning was complex: judges are ordering more evaluations for those with mental health conditions, likely because of a greater understanding than in years past; the mental health system has been significantly underfunded for years; and there is a broader agreement — and a legal framework, through the Americans With Disabilities Act — that people with disabilities have the right to live full and inclusive lives in community-based settings. “We didn’t get here overnight, and the solutions are complex,” said Pinals. WFAE’s reporting found that over half of those in North Carolina jail who were found incapable of standing trial wait longer than 300 days before they get a bed. That just accounts for the time between when a person is deemed incapable to proceed and when they get into the state hospital, said Dana Ervin, lead reporter on the project. That does not account for the time it takes for jails to transport incarcerated people to get evaluated, sometimes multiple times, and then transport them back to court so a judge can decide if they are capable of proceeding.


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