LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — Hundreds of people are in limbo, waiting for what could be a critical factor in their criminal cases.
The Kentucky Correctional Psychiatric Center (KCPC) is responsible for conducting judge-issued orders for mental health examinations to establish competency in felony cases. However, their waitlist for assessments has been longer than normal for over a year.
As of November 9, there were 302 people waiting for a competency evaluation or a criminal responsibility evaluation in 71 Kentucky counties. The average wait for those on their list is 179 days. The shortest wait is zero days and the longest is 1,031 days.
Defense attorney Dan Carman says some of his clients are among those waiting.
"One, we've been waiting for, for a while — actually got scheduled for this Friday," said Carman.
Carman has worked in courthouses all over, defending clients for nearly 14 years. He says the current waitlist for psychiatric evaluations at KCPC has gotten better this year but remains a clear issue.
"I've noticed... and the delays have become notorious," said Carman.
Records show around 287 people or 95% of those on the list were waiting behind bars at the time of the request.
A district judge, who requested to remain anonymous, told LEX 18 that some defendants have decided to change their plea to guilty in effort to spend less time in jail rather than wait.
"Then it is a question as to in that moment — does this person understand what they are doing to take a plea," they said.
The judge placed an order with KCPC for an exam back in March and was recently told it would be assessed in February 2023.
"Everyone is very frustrated," the judge said. "It appears that KCPC just doesn't have the bandwidth to handle the volume. They are doing some evaluations with telehealth in the jails and the inmates who are willing to do it by telehealth are being processed in weeks versus months, which is helpful."
Others have elected to pay to have private evaluations done. However, KCPC evaluations are viewed in the judicial system as neutral, so defendants might still have to wait.
"We're talking about people's liberty, we're talking about their criminal records, we're talking about their money. We're talking about the safety of the community," said Carman.
A defendant has to understand the nature of the proceedings and the nature of the charges they are facing to be tried, according to state law.
Defense attorney John Landon has been defending clients for 15 years across Kentucky. He also serves on the board of directors for NAMI Lexington because of his passion for helping those experiencing mental health concerns.
Landon currently has four clients waiting for assessments.
"I think that every judge, every prosecutor, every defense attorney, acutely knows the problems in this situation," said Landon.
Why is this happening?
The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Human Services did not respond to that question by the time this story aired on Thursday. However, LEX 18 received emails inquiring about the waitlist from when the pandemic began until October 2022.
In one email dated January 6, 2022, Interim Facility Director Koleen Slusher said they were "struggling with staffing shortages" and having trouble finding safe and secure space for evaluations. Other emails mentioned telehealth was helping.
More records show the extent of the staffing issues faced by KCPC.
As of this November, they had 91 vacant positions. Most were in the clinical services unit, including 47 correctional officers, three charge nurses, three behavioral specialists, a medical director and seven registered nurses.
For Landon, who has worked in the criminal and psychological realm for years, the waitlists are an indicator of an even greater issue — how the criminal justice system handles mental health.
"It's a system that, in my opinion, isn't functioning correctly," said Landon.
He feels it starts with the initial arrest. Current law states that those believed to be suffering with mental health or experiencing an episode should be taken to a local hospital to become stable before they are released. Instead, he feels like they are being jailed or released without proper treatment and could potentially commit more harm to themselves or others.
This is an issue that is being talked about within the Kentucky Judicial Commission on Mental Health. It was formed in August to work to improve how the courts address justice-involved people with needs related to mental health, substance use and intellectual disabilities.