Midcase mental health evaluations for Douglas County jail inmates have increased
photo by: Mike Yoder
Elija M. Walker bashed out a couple windows of a downtown Lawrence storefront and picked up a felony charge for criminal damage to property.
Walker was in custody of the Douglas County Jail 11 months for the nonviolent crime before the district court finally resolved his case, late last year.
Behind the lengthy delay: court orders to ensure Walker was mentally fit to participate in the criminal proceedings against him.
Walker’s case is one of an apparently growing number of instances where court-ordered competency evaluations pause inmates’ criminal cases — sometimes for just a few weeks, or in extreme examples, for more than a year.
The number of court-ordered inmate competency evaluations logged by the Douglas County Jail has risen slightly over the past three years, according to numbers provided by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.
The jail logged 69 competency evaluations in 2017, up from 65 evaluations in 2016 and 52 evaluations in 2015, according to the numbers. Those figures may include multiple evaluations, or attempted evaluations, on the same inmates, the sheriff’s office said.
The individuals occupying the jail are constantly in flux, and not all criminal cases filed involve defendants who are jailed, so it’s difficult to find precise numbers to put those figures in perspective. The average length of stay for inmates so far in 2018 is 15 ½ days, which includes everyone from people who bond out within hours to a handful of people who’ve been in custody one, two or even three years, according to the sheriff’s office.
However, the number of competency evaluations per year is equal to around a quarter of the jail’s average daily population, which was 231 in 2017.
The jail’s current capacity is 186.
With mail-in voting open on a half-cent sales tax to fund a $44 million, 179-bed expansion of the jail and an $11 million behavioral health campus, case processing time has been pointed to as one reason the jail is overflowing.
The majority of competency evaluations ordered by Douglas County District Court are performed locally, by Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center staff.
However, some defendants have more complex issues to evaluate or need more intensive mental health treatment midcase. They are ordered to one of the state psychiatric facilities, usually Larned State Hospital or sometimes Osawatomie.
Right now, there are two Douglas County Jail inmates at Larned, with two on the waitlist to get in, according to the sheriff’s office.
For inmates sent to Larned, the process tacks on months or even more than a year to getting their cases resolved.
Part of that is spent undergoing in-depth evaluations or treatment there, but the first part is spent waiting to get in.
Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern and District Attorney Charles Branson said they’ve seen inmates wait up to four or even six months just to get a bed there.
“That’s four to six months that they’re sitting in our jail, waiting to get to the state hospital,” Branson said. “It could cause a year delay in a resolution for a case.”
Larned has 170 beds in its forensic unit, where criminal defendants and convicts are housed, said Angela de Rocha, communications director for the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services.
She said the hospital has added 20 beds to that unit in recent years, but it still isn’t keeping up with demand.
Though numbers were not immediately available late last week, de Rocha said courts statewide are referring more and more defendants to Larned, which is lengthening wait times to get a bed.
Although Lawrence has the resources to do most of its evaluations locally, the state has several initiatives to get more evaluations performed at the community level elsewhere to relieve pressure on the space at Larned, she said.
“Some of these people are genuinely ill, and they need to be evaluated and treated,” de Rocha said. “If they just have to wait in jail … it’s not a good thing for them.”
In Douglas County, most competency evaluations are requested by the defendants’ attorneys, though judges and prosecutors can and have initiated requests, Branson said.
At times, Branson said, he thinks competency may be overused by defendants as a strategy.
“I have witnessed cases over the years where defendants have attempted to use competency to delay the proceedings or conviction with the hopes they will get a better outcome,” Branson said.
Ensuring a defendant is mentally competent is critical, however, Branson said.
The law says they must be able to understand the court process and be capable of participating in their own defense.
“It’s just a matter of fundamental fairness,” Branson said.
Judges are the ones who ultimately order evaluations and, after reviewing results — which are not public documents — and hearing arguments, decide whether defendants are competent to proceed with their cases.
Douglas County District Court Chief Judge Peggy Kittel said that determination trumps speed in resolving cases.
“Even if someone wants to enter a plea, you have to make sure they know what they’re doing,” Kittel said. “If they’re not competent, you can’t take their plea.”
Within a couple weeks of Walker’s arrest, based on his “inability to understand the proceedings,” the court ordered him to undergo a psychological evaluation performed by Bert Nash.
A month later, in February 2017, the court ordered Walker to be transported to Larned State Hospital for a more in-depth evaluation, citing his behavior and inability to understand the charges and nature of the proceedings.
Walker’s criminal proceedings didn’t resume until that September; after a hearing where the court deemed him competent, he entered a plea in October; and he was sentenced at the end of November.
Competency proceedings often aren’t the only issue dragging out inmates’ cases. Each inmate’s individual circumstances can get complicated.
Walker is an example. Although competency proceedings added months to his case, other factors played into his custody status, court records show.
Walker, whose address court documents list as transient, said in one handwritten letter to the court that he had a number of municipal charges in addition to the felony vandalism. In another letter, he said he fired his first appointed attorney “in open court,” which led to a new one being appointed.
Walker’s bond in the felony case was $15,000 cash or surety, but even if he had bonded out he would not have been free. Upon sentencing he was released from the local jail and transported directly to Shawnee County custody.
Competency proceedings — including extended stays at Larned — have contributed to extreme case delays for several of the jail’s very longest inmates, the Journal-World found in a recent review of their case files.
One of them, Isaac A. Taylor, has been in custody since June 2015, when he allegedly stabbed a 17-year-old with a pocketknife on Massachusetts Street.
Taylor, 28, has spent upward of a year and a half at Larned undergoing treatment.
After finally gaining competency, according to a March entry in his case, Taylor was returned to Douglas County and was back in court just last week.
But instead of entering a plea or scheduling a trial date, Taylor’s case was delayed again because of his mental health.
His appointed attorney, Blake Glover, said he had “concerns” based on his conversations with Taylor. Kittel ordered a new competency evaluation, locally, and asked Taylor to come back to court for another status conference two weeks later.
Asked whether he objected, Taylor said as he walked back to his seat, “Nope, I’m cool with that.”
Inmate competency evaluations
Following are numbers of competency evaluations — psychological evaluations to determine whether an inmate is mentally competent to stand trial — logged for inmates at the Douglas County Jail. Counts may include multiple evaluations or attempted evaluations for the same inmates.
2017 — 69
2016 — 65
2015 — 52
— Source: Douglas County Sheriff’s Office