North Carolina disability rights group sues over mental health failures in jails

Disability Rights North Carolina is suing the state Department of Health and Human Services, arguing the agency is violating the constitutional rights of disabled individuals in North Carolina jails by failing to provide timely evaluations and treatment.

The lawsuit, filed with the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argues that such disabled detainees lack capacity to understand legal proceedings against them, yet they can sometimes be left for months in jail awaiting evaluations to determine whether they are fit to stand trial on charges brought against them.

“We know that severe mental illness and entanglement in the criminal legal system are too often linked,” said Michele Delgado, a staff attorney with the ACLU of North Carolina.

“Under the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause, a person who is mentally ill and has been charged with a crime cannot be held more than a reasonable period of time to discern whether the person detained will be capable to proceed to trial. This complaint highlights widespread issues like delays in evaluations and treatment and dire inadequacies in the capacity of our state psychiatric hospitals to treat ITP (incapable to proceed) individuals. Prolonged confinement persists and is a grave and inhumane violation of constitutional rights.”

The lawsuit alleges that detainees do not receive adequate or timely treatment for their mental health disabilities — if they even get any at all. The plaintiffs argue that inmates, as a result, suffer from worsening conditions while they wait, which increases their risk of self-harm or inflicting harm on others.

Individuals detained and awaiting evaluation wait an average of 68 days for an assessment, according to Disability Rights North Carolina. The group further points out that even after a detainee has received an evaluation and deemed incompetent to stand trial, the waiting is still not over. Those individuals wait more than five months for a bed at a state-operated psychiatric hospital where they can receive appropriate mental health care, the group said.

In addition to the 14th Amendment issues, the lawsuit also alleges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

The complaint seeks correction by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) to ensure timely evaluations and treatment.

“Many who are sitting in jail are there because of lack of services and support in the community. And our state hospitals lack beds for ITP individuals because many people who are in those facilities enter and get stuck there due to the lack of community-based services. NCDHHS must do better for North Carolinians with mental health disabilities,” said Disability Rights North Carolina Supervising Attorney Susan Pollitt.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. In early 2022, she left the business to serve as Communications Director for St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch. After leaving the administration, Janelle briefly worked as a communications consultant for candidates, businesses and non-profits, before accepting her position as Publisher for Southeast Politics, a homecoming of sorts to her Florida Politics roots, where she served as a reporter and editor for several years. Janelle has also held roles covering the intersection of politics and business for the Tampa Bay Business Journal and general assignment news with an emphasis on social justice and climate change for WMNF Community Radio, where she also hosted a political call-in show under several names, including Last Call, Midpoint and The Scoop. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at [email protected]

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