New program to get mentally ill inmates held in limbo ‘competent’ enough for trial

The wait for a state hospital bed where “competency” restoration can happen can take years; Bexar County looks to work on it in-house

SAN ANTONIO – There are 280 inmates at the Bexar County Jail being held in limbo.

They have been designated “incompetent to stand trial” because of mental health issues, intellectual disabilities, or other problems. If they can’t make bail, they’re stuck waiting for a bed in the heavily back-logged state hospital system.

Until the inmates get their competency restored, their criminal cases can’t move forward, and neither can they.

“Some of these people have been in our jail for so long that it’s already been time served. We just got to get that case in front of a judge and get it moving,” Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said.

The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, Bexar County Mental Health Department, University Health, and the Center for Health Care Services (CHCS) have a plan to help cut down on the delay with a new pilot program at the jail, which county commissioners will vote on Tuesday morning.

CHCS would run a “Jail-Based Competency Restoration” (JBCR) program using federal grant dollars. Rather than waiting for state hospital beds to open up, they would hold individual and group sessions within the jail to get more inmates to the point of being competent enough for their cases to proceed.

The ultimate goal is to serve 40 people in 2023 and another 80 in 2024. CHCS aims for a little more than half of those to have their competency restored “and/or” get their charges dismissed.

Being “competent” to stand trial means the defendant has a general, realistic understanding of their legal situation and can rationally consult with their attorney.

If it does not appear someone will regain their competence, it would be up to the court to decide what’s next.

“Helping the individual understand what does the judge do? What is your charge? What are the pleas that you can plea for those charges? And then what is your defense attorney, and how can they help you?” explained CHCS Director of Justice Programs Monica Torres.

There will also be a medical element to the program to address any mental health issues that may affect a person’s competence.

CHCS and BCSO hope the program can help cut down on the jail population by allowing court cases to move forward and the wait list for inpatient psychiatric beds.

About the Authors

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

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