New program addresses mental health care for inmates

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office is working with local mental health providers to cut down the state’s notoriously long wait times to provide services to inmates declared incompetent to stand trial.



March 22, 2024 - 3:12 PM

The Douglas County Jail houses about 10 inmates who are on a waiting list to receive mental health services the Larned State Hospital. They must receive care there before they can stand trial. They can sit on the waiting list for more than a year. Photo by DYLAN LYSEN/KANSAS NEWS SERVICE

LAWRENCE — Inmates in jail in Douglas County who are accused of crimes but unable to stand trial because of mental health struggles may soon receive needed care much sooner.

That would allow them to resolve their cases faster and avoid waiting in a jail cell for more than a year in some cases before they can even defend themselves in court.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and local mental health care providers are launching a new program next month that will administer outpatient mental health care to those inmates. The initiative aims to restore their competency so they can stand trial and move on with their lives.

The new program is believed to be the first of its kind at the local level and would help address a statewide backlog of inmates waiting for evaluations and competency restoration services at state hospitals in Larned and Osawatomie. It will be funded by a state grant.

Patrick Schmitz, CEO for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center in Lawrence, said the program may be able to reduce the number of local inmates on the waitlist.

“Thus, getting them their day in court sooner,” Schmitz said, “and then getting them out of the jail and back into the community and continuing to help them in their recovery journey.”

The state hospitals have long been plagued by a waitlist that leaves some inmates languishing in jail up to 14 months before they are ever treated. Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister said inmates can spend more time in jail waiting – without ever being convicted – than the prison time they are ultimately sentenced to.

One man spent six years in custody going back and forth to receive mental health care while waiting to stand trial on charges that he was eventually convicted of and sentenced to only 16 months. Armbrister said that the inmate was stuck in jail for much longer than he needed to be because of the backlog.

“It’s stasis,” Armbrister said in an interview. “You’re just stuck and you can’t go forward or backward.”

When a person struggling with mental health issues is accused of a crime, a judge in the Kansas court system may determine they are not fit to stand trial. It’s because their illness prevents them from participating in their own defense.

That judge will then order the inmate to receive health care aimed at restoring competency to stand trial. Until recently, those services were required to be provided at a state hospital.

But there are many more inmates who need services than those hospitals can take in, creating the long wait time. Armbrister said the Douglas County jail houses about 10 inmates who are on the waiting list, and they could wait more than a year before a state hospital will take them in.

A law passed in 2022 opened the door for counties to take treatment into their own hands. Armbrister hopes it will help expand the state’s bandwidth to treat the inmates and shrink the waitlist.

“What we can do is get one or two of those people off of that list,” Armbrister said. “Not only does that free up a bed or two for our people to go (to a state hospital) but for the rest of the state.”

Bert Nash has long provided mental health services to Douglas County inmates, but they have not been able to help when an inmate refuses care. Only the state hospitals had the authority to mandate mental health care to restore competency.

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