DENVER — Outside specialists will help to bring the state hospital at Pueblo into compliance with a requirement to promptly determine whether hundreds of criminal defendants in Colorado jails are competent to stand trial.
The two specialists, who have a broad mission, will help a federal judge oversee that competency evaluations function of the hospital, known as the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo.
The forensic systems specialists are to work for as many years as it takes to get CMHIP and its parent agency into compliance with required time frames for providing competency evaluations. The parent agency is the state Department of Human Services, based in Denver
Magistrate Judge Nina Y. Wang of the U.S. District Court for Colorado set out the mission of the two specialists in a nine-page order she issued on Friday in Denver, appointing them.
One, Neil Gowensmith, is a clinical and forensic psychologist, who is a professor at the University of Denver. The other, Daniel Murrie, is a professor in the psychiatry department of the University of Virginia.
Both have experience onsite at mental health facilities in various parts of the United States, according to their resumes
The judge's action is the latest development in a lawsuit, which she is presiding over, against the hospital and the department. The lawsuit claims they are violating the constitutional rights of criminal defendants because they are lingering in jails due to delays by CMHIP and DHS to move the defendants from jails, so they can be evaluated to determine whether they are mentally competent.
The two state agencies recently told Wang they will open a new unit in August 2020 at the hospital, with 24 additional beds for defendants to undergo competency evaluations. The purpose of the new unit is to move toward compliance by creating more physical capacity, so evaluations can occur more promptly.
The planned 24-bed unit is part of a more extensive plan to increase staffing, salaries and capacity. That plan is dependent on Colorado legislators providing millions of dollars of additional funding.
The criminal defendants who are at issue are pre-trial detainees who, under the law, are presumed innocent because they have not been put on trial to determine if they are guilty.
Judges of state courts across the state, who have doubts that the defendants are competent, have ordered the hospital and its parent agency to make that determination.
The time frame requires the state to offer to move detainees from jails to CMHIP, for evaluations by mental health professionals, within 28 days of judges' orders to have the evaluations.
Wang has said DHS has not complied since June 2017 with the time frame for inpatient treatment to restore mentally ill defendants to competency.
The judge's order on Friday shows one example in which as many as 203 detainees had been waiting at least 94 days, as recently as last August.
The specialists appointed by the judge are to perform part of their mission by being onsite at the hospital part of the time. They are to submit monthly reports to her and to both sides in the lawsuit regarding "the status of the wait list, the progress toward reaching the goal and what impediments, if any, exist," Wang said in her order.
She went on to say that the specialists will assist her to decide what she may order the state to do to fulfill compliance with the time frame.
Disability Law Colorado asked the judge to appoint the outside specialists to help Wang monitor the problem issues and to help her fulfill her goal of getting CMHIP and DHS into compliance with the time frame. Disability Law is a legal agency that advocates for disabled persons and filed the lawsuit on behalf of the detainees.
The 28-day time frame was agreed to in the past by DHS and Disability Law, but CMHIP later fell behind. That caused the judge to rule several weeks ago that the state was out of compliance with the time frame.