The Maryland Department of Health, under pressure from the courts, announced legislation and other actions Tuesday to address long-standing shortages of beds for defendants referred by judges for mental health treatment.
Health Secretary-designate Robert R. Neall said the department will add nearly 100 beds at its hospital facilities as well as at community-based providers.
Neall testified Tuesday in Annapolis against a bill that would require department facilities to admit defendants as patients as soon as a judge requires them to do so. He assured members of the House Judiciary Committee that the department is making progress in reducing its admissions backlog.
“We are trying to step up our game so we can accommodate these people as quickly as possible,” Neall said.
The department, under previous secretaries Van T. Mitchell and Dennis R. Schrader, had been hauled into court by judges who were concerned that people they had ordered to be placed in psychiatric facilities were instead languishing in jail for weeks because of a shortage of beds at such facilities as Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup and Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville.
Last year, Baltimore Circuit Judge Gale Rasin found Schrader and other department officials in civil contempt of court — an order the state is appealing. Gov. Larry Hogan named Neall to succeed Schrader last month.
As a counterproposal to the bill introduced by Del. Erek Barron, the department said Tuesday that it will introduce legislation dealing with the issue of delayed admissions. The department’s bill would require it to place court-ordered patients within 21 days of a judge’s order.
“We are committed to fixing this long-standing problem and providing treatment for these individuals,” Neall said.
The secretary told lawmakers he is flexible about the 21-day requirement but wouldn’t be comfortable with a time shorter than two weeks.
Barron, a Prince George’s County Democrat, said that the 21-day period is too long.
“This is a real public safety issue,” he said. “When we’re not giving people the treatment they need, it exacerbates their problems.”
Barron’s legislation received support from witnesses including state judges and officials and correctional officers from the Montgomery County Detention Center.
District Judge George M. Lipman, presiding judge of Baltimore’s mental health court, urged lawmakers to set as short a grace period for the department as possible. He said that every day the state keeps a mentally ill person in jail is a “lose, lose, lose situation.”
Shelford Gilliam, deputy warden at Montgomery’s detention center, said keeping mentally ill people in his jail while they wait for a bed takes a toll on his officers. He said those inmates repeatedly lash out at officers and try to injure themselves.
“It puts the risk not just on the inmate but on the staff that supervises them,” Gilliam said.
Jeff Butterworth, a corporal at the detention center, said the 21 days called for in the department bill is “way too long.”
Butterworth described scenes of mentally ill inmates eating and throwing their waste and living in conditions they don’t understand.
“It’s inhumane,” he said.
But some legislators balked at the cost of assuring there are enough beds to accommodate all mentally ill defendants without delays.
“I’m just trying to figure out where we find another $100 million to do something like this,” said Del. Joe Cluster, a Baltimore County Republican.
According to the health department, the requirements of Barron’s bill could force it to build a new hospital to accommodate a rise in the numbers of mentally ill who must be institutionalized, at a cost of $65 million for construction and $27.5 million in annual operating costs.
The state health department said it has been working to implement the recommendations of an internal work group to expand capacity, improve its service and mend its relationships with other groups in the system. According to the department, actions it has taken so far will add 95 new beds for court-ordered placements by April.