MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama today entered a consent decree in Hunter, et al. v. Beshear. The decree requires the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Mental Health (“ADMH”), Lynn T. Beshear, to provide timely psychiatric services to class members, persons with mental illness or intellectual disabilities whose competency to stand trial is questioned or found lacking and in need of prompt mental evaluations and competency restoration treatment.
The class action was filed by the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP), Henry F. (Hank) Sherrod III, and the ACLU of Alabama Foundation to remedy the damage being done to class members who were left to languish in Alabama jails for months awaiting court-ordered psychiatric services.
Under Alabama law, when a court questions a criminal defendant’s ability to assist in his or her own defense or finds the defendant incompetent to stand trial, the court commits the defendant to the custody of ADMH for a mental evaluation or treatment designed to restore the defendant’s competency. An incompetent defendant cannot be tried until state officials provide the defendant the psychiatric services ordered by the judge presiding over the criminal case.
Prior to the filing of this lawsuit, class members in need of evaluation and treatment were forced to wait up to nine months before being transferred to an appropriate ADMH facility (i.e, Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility or Bryce Hospital). During this wait, class members received minimal mental health care in city and county jails ill-equipped to care for them. As a result, many class members experienced severe deterioration, some even becoming non-verbal and engaging in self-harm. Lacking proper treatment, class members were more likely to have conflicts with other inmates, leading them to be placed in solitary confinement, which in turn exacerbated their mental illnesses and required more intensive services from ADMH once they eventually were transferred.
Thus, the consent decree not only helps the class members, it also relieves pressure on the resources of ADMH, stretched thin in the face of cuts to state funding, and local jails.
The consent decree provides for the elimination of protracted delays in ADMH’s provision of mental evaluations and competency restoration treatment over the next two years. By late 2019, ADMH will provide mental evaluations and competency restoration treatment within 30 days of its receipt of the court order directing the individual to undergo psychiatric services. The consent decree also provides for the addition of 100 forensic hospital and community beds to ensure that persons receive services in a timely manner.
“This consent decree addresses a thorny problem that has long plagued people with disabilities, jail officials, and even the Alabama Department of Mental Health. At its core, it ensures that the Constitution’s basic protection against indefinite incarceration absent a criminal conviction is more than an illusory promise for people with disabilities. But as a practical matter, it also will enable ADMH and jail officials to more effectively manage the movement of people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities through the State’s criminal justice and mental health systems,” said M. Geron Gadd, Legal Director of the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP), counsel for the plaintiff class.
“Unlike those who are convicted of crimes and legitimately sentenced to imprisonment,” said Hank Sherrod, counsel for the plaintiff class, “our clients will not get their day in court until ADMH provides them the psychiatric services ordered by the judge presiding over their criminal case. They languish in jails solely because ADMH fails to timely provide them court-ordered treatment. The human costs of the delay are real, and I am proud to have been a part of this important work with ADAP and the ACLU,” said Hank Sherrod, counsel for the plaintiff class.
“A fundamental requirement of the law is that a person who needs treatment, and is involuntarily confined for any reason, must be provided adequate treatment in a timely manner. Before we filed this lawsuit, the State of Alabama failed to provide that treatment to our clients. This settlement will afford our clients the treatment they need and the liberty they deserve,” explained Randall C. Marshall, Executive Director of the ACLU of Alabama, counsel for the plaintiff class.
For more information and the final consent decree: https://www.aclualabama.org/en/cases/hunter-et-al-v-perdue
The Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, a program affiliated with the University of Alabama School of Law, is Alabama’s federally-funded protection and advocacy agency. Its mission is to safeguard persons with disabilities from abuse and neglect and to protect their civil rights.
Henry F. (Hank) Sherrod III is a civil rights lawyer serving clients throughout Alabama with extensive experience in jail-related litigation.