More work needed on mental health capacity to stand trial

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (AP)

Sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t fix the problem.

In September, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court looked at the case of a mentally ill man convicted of a crime who was charged with another crime while in state prison. A judge found the man’s profound mental illness meant that, under a 1976 law, he was incompetent to understand what had happened and why it was wrong. He couldn’t participate in his defense and therefore couldn’t stand trial.

The law acknowledges that people without the mental capacity to stand trial should not stand trial. However, as cases over the 46 years since have proved, the law has gaps. Rather than finding a solution to the problem, the law allows for many — if not most — defendants with mental illness to exist in limbo between the courts and mandated treatment.

The September ruling gives courts permission to cut to the chase, dismissing charges against a defendant who might never be able to participate in his or her defense. This isn’t a short-term mental health issue caused by drugs or one that can be cured by them. It isn’t about a mild injury or a shock to the system. This would be about wounds or illness that cannot be healed, only managed.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s ruling in Commonwealth v. Jquan Humphrey cleared the way for judges to dismiss charges against defendants who would never be competent to participate in their own trial.

Judges in Pa. can now dismiss charges against people ‘incompetent’ to stand trial, but flaws remain

So that latest ruling tries to fix a hole in an old law. That’s what the courts can do. It is a tourniquet for the problem — first aid in an emergency.

Now, the Legislature and Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro need to work on finding the cure. Namely, there needs to be real treatment and more treatment.

Like drug rehabilitation, too often the only mental health treatment some people get is while they are incarcerated or otherwise court-mandated. Beds for residential treatment are not available the way they should be. Basic therapy is at a premium, with long waiting lists and high hurdles.

In Harrison, the Allegheny Valley Hospital mental health facility has just shifted to providing care only for geriatric patients. That’s good for older people in the Alle-Kiski Valley but not for younger adults in need.

These are issues that government needs to address from a legislative and executive perspective. Not only do people in the court system need treatment, but people also need treatment to keep them out of the court system.

The Supreme Court did what it could. More is needed to solve the problem.

— From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (AP).