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Maryland legislature OKs deadline for state-run psychiatric hospitals to admit patients from jails

The Baltimore County Detention Center has a special unit that houses mentally ill inmates who can't be transferred to state hospitals because of a bed shortage.
The Baltimore County Detention Center has a special unit that houses mentally ill inmates who can't be transferred to state hospitals because of a bed shortage.(JED KIRSCHBAUM / Baltimore Sun)

State-run psychiatric hospitals will face a deadline to admit patients referred by Maryland courts under legislation approved by the General Assembly Monday night.

The measure now goes to Gov. Larry Hogan.

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The bill, sponsored by Del. Erek Barron, addresses a problem that has landed two past Maryland health secretaries in contempt-of-court proceedings. Judges have complained that defendants languish for weeks or months in jail before being admitted to psychiatric hospitals run by the Maryland Department of Health even after courts had found them mentally incompetent to stand trial or not criminally responsible.

The health department blamed the delays on a lack of hospital beds.

In jails across Maryland, mentally ill individuals who have been charged with crimes are languishing in cells despite court orders entitling them to evaluation and treatment in hospitals.

Such a case led Baltimore City Circuit Judge Gale Rasin to find then-Health Secretary Dennis R. Schrader and other top department officials in civil contempt last year. That finding is under appeal. Previously, Secretary Van T. Mitchell was summoned to court for similar proceedings but staved off a contempt finding.

The legislation would give such hospitals as Clifton T. Perkins and Spring Grove 10 business days to admit court-referred patients or face court-imposed sanctions. Among other things, the courts could require the department to reimburse local jails for the extra cost of housing those detainees after the admission deadline.

The 10-day requirement represents a compromise between proponents of the bill and the department. Barron’s original bill called for immediate admission once ordered by a judge.

Barron, a Prince George’s County Democrat, called the bill’s passage “a significant step toward relieving a longstanding issue of healthcare treatment, due process and public safety.”

“I’m hopeful Maryland is now trending towards being a national model for the decriminalization of mental illness,” he said.

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