A large number of mentally ill jail inmates is overwhelming psychiatric hospitals across the U.S., a Wall Street Journal analysis of state data shows. It is a mounting crisis as more inmates languish in jail without court-ordered treatment, not convicted and unable to stand trial. Around 450 inmates in Colorado alone are stuck in this situation, their condition often steadily deteriorating. Frustrated state mental-health and jail officials say they are struggling against a tide of people in crisis. “It’s such an inept system we are working in...[one inmate] has been here 226 days, as of today,” said the Boulder jail’s mental-health supervisor, Pam Levett. The Journal queried all 50 states in March on the number of people accused of crimes who are waiting in jail for inpatient treatment so they can be stabilized enough to stand trial. Of the 39 states that provided complete data, 34 saw their wait lists for such treatment lengthen since before the pandemic.
Many of the lists are triple or even quadruple what they had been. In some cases, inmates are waiting behind bars longer than the maximum sentence for the crimes of which they’re accused. In Texas, the number of jail inmates waiting for competency treatment has more than doubled since 2019 to 2,466. That is nearly a thousand more than the number of state psychiatric beds. Maryland had no jail inmates in 2019 waiting for psychiatric treatment to get them fit for trial. The number grew so high since then—126 as of earlier this year—that state health officials last September formed an “incident command system” to try to reduce it. Oklahoma’s wait list grew so long that health officials scrapped it and began medicating mentally ill inmates in the jails, trying to restore them to competency for trial there. Among causes of the logjam, the number of people accused of crimes and referred for psychiatric treatment rose as mental health worsened during the pandemic.