Lost in limbo

February 28, 2005

REMEMBER James Dunkes, the Baltimore County man found incompetent to stand trial who spent six years in a state hospital even though minor theft charges against him had been dropped? Mr. Dunkes was released last year after the Maryland Disability Law Center intervened on his behalf. But he wasn't the only mentally impaired defendant caught in this bureaucratic limbo.

Edward Jordan, Vernelson Brinkley, James Silver and Donald Distance were charged with minor crimes -- stealing a pipe, snatching a purse, slapping his mother, trespassing -- found incompetent to stand trial because of mental impairment or illness, and sent to a state hospital. Each has spent more time in the hospital than he would have spent in jail if convicted of his crime.

Mandated court review of such cases would help ensure that hospital stays are warranted and not excessive.

Advocates for the disabled are seeking legislative approval for just such a review. Their proposed changes in state law make sense, not only from a civil rights perspective but also economically. The average daily cost of treatment at a state psychiatric hospital is $500, with most court-ordered patients staying less than 90 days, according to the state health department.

The Dunkes case graphically showed how a certain class of defendants found not criminally responsible can be forgotten -- and wind up in the system for years. These defendants are sent to a state hospital to receive treatment so they might become competent to stand trial. But some never improve to that stage because of their brain injury, according to their doctors. They remain warehoused because it's no one's job to periodically review their legal status.

Even though Mr. Dunkes was included in an annual report of court-committed patients, no judge, prosecutor or defense lawyer was charged with reviewing or responding to the report. That loophole in the law became a black hole for Mr. Dunkes, who remained a patient for six years even though he told hospital workers repeatedly that the charges against him had been dropped.

The proposed change would ensure that a court checks on the status of these defendants and that their treatment period does not exceed the maximum sentence they could serve if convicted, or two years, whichever is shorter. About 140 people are confined to state hospitals because of competency issues. Once their doctors determine they will never be restored to competency, there's no reason to keep them locked up in a hospital ward unless they pose a danger to themselves or others. And if that's the case, they should be civilly committed.

James Dunkes, 46, Vernelson Brinkley, 46, and Edward Jordan, 54, collectively spent 18 years in state hospitals, often on locked wards, prohibited from participating in certain educational and recreational programs because of their criminal charges. They could have remained there indefinitely under the law. Now living safely and happily in community programs or with their families, they provide the best evidence for why the law should be changed.

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