lady justice
“Lady Justice” – historic graphic from the Facebook Page of the Northern District Court of Oklahoma in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Tulsa, Oklahoma – The Tulsa law firm Frederic Dorwart, Lawyers PLLC (“FDL”) and the Oklahoma Disability Law Center filed a civil rights class action lawsuit Wednesday (March 1) in federal court on behalf of four plaintiffs with severe mental illness who are incarcerated in Oklahoma’s county jails for months awaiting court-ordered mental health services known as competency restoration treatment.
The lawsuit argues that the prolonged time periods Plaintiffs are forced to wait for treatment while incarcerated violate their due process rights under the federal and Oklahoma constitutions. The group filing the federal lawsuit alleges that “Oklahoma’s competency restoration system is broken.”
Plaintiffs Leslie BriggsEvan Watson, and Henry A. Meyer, III brought the lawsuit as “Next Friends” of four defendants who have been declared incompetent in Oklahoma criminal cases.
The Next Friends are all Oklahoma lawyers who have been appointed as “guardians ad litem” for the defendants in their criminal cases.
“People experiencing mental illness while locked up in county jails are among the most vulnerable and powerless people in our communities,” said Paul DeMuro, lead counsel for Plaintiffs, and partner in Frederic Dorwart, Lawyers PLLC.
“They are stuck in a horrible legal purgatory. Presumed innocent, but they can’t go to trial to prove their innocence, or work out a plea deal, because they have been declared incompetent. The Department doesn’t provide them the care they need so their competency can be restored and their cases put back on track. They are effectively being punished just for having a mental illness.”
The lawsuit claims that more than 100 people are currently, in the words of a press release sent to The City Sentinel, “caged” in Oklahoma county jails awaiting competency restoration treatment. Plaintiffs ask the Court, among other things, to order the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to “develop a remedial plan to reduce wait times for competency evaluations and competency restoration treatment to within constitutional limits.”
Plaintiffs do not seek any monetary damages.
In a criminal case, when an individual with mental illness is incapable of assisting in their own defense, a judge orders competency restoration treatment, which takes place at a state-run forensic center due to the specialized treatment required.
While awaiting restoration services, the person’s criminal case is suspended, and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services is ordered to provide restorative treatment within a reasonable time.
Oklahoma has only one state-run facility that provides competency restoration services for defendants in all 77 Oklahoma counties — the Oklahoma Forensic Center in Vinita.
“Jails are, by their nature, punitive places. They are neither designed nor equipped to provide restoration treatment for people with mental illness,” said DeMuro.
The lawsuit alleges that Plaintiffs, and similarly situated people, are at a greater risk for abuse and self-harm while locked up in jail.
“We have all seen the news reports about people experiencing mental health crises in Oklahoma jails dying at alarming rates,” said Nick Southerland, staff attorney with the Oklahoma Disability Law Center.
“Not only are incompetent defendants at increased risk of harm while incarcerated, they are also isolated from their friends, family, and community-based treatment providers while they are in jail.”
Federal courts have found that delays of longer than 7-14 days between a court’s commitment order and hospitalization for treatment are unconstitutional. According to a report published by The Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, ‘Fractured: Oklahoma’s System of Trial Competency Restoration Leaves Hundreds Languishing in County Jails’, there has been a long wait-list in Oklahoma for people to get a bed and care at the Oklahoma Forensic Center.
The facility has 200 beds, with an additional 80 under construction. All 200 beds are fully occupied and between 173 and 211 individuals around Oklahoma are on a wait-list spending months in jail waiting for competency restoration services.
The Oklahoma Forensic Center has seen a 260% increase in the waitlist for competency restoration services between March of 2020 and April of 2022.
The number of patients in Oklahoma found Not Guilty by Reason of Mental Illness has increased by 28% in the last five years.
In the complaint, Tulsa County’s elected Sheriff, Vic Regalado is quoted in his testimony to the Senate Public Safety Committee in 2021, “Jails are ‘the de facto mental health facilities in Oklahoma, and if that doesn’t cause you embarrassment, shame, all those negative feelings, it should. Because it means we’ve said mental illness means absolutely nothing in the state of Oklahoma.”
The lawsuit alleges that the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, which operates the Oklahoma Forensic Center has violated the plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s due process rights and rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, by denying them timely and appropriate treatment for their mental health issues.
In addition to filing the case as a class action, plaintiffs’ counsel filed a motion for preliminary and permanent injunctive relief, asking the court to order ODMHSAS to provide the capacity to admit committed patients to treatment within a reasonable time.
The lawsuit was filed against Carrie Slatton-Hodges, in her official capacity as the Commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and Crystal Hearnandez, in her official capacity as Executive Director of the Oklahoma Forensic Center.
Attorneys litigating the case include Paul DeMuro, Frederic Dorwart and David W. Leimbach of Frederic Dorwart, Lawyers PLLC and Nick Southerland and Brian S. Wilkerson of the Oklahoma Disability Law Center, Inc.
The filing is before Northern District Court of Oklahoma is based in and around Tulsa Case No. 23-cv-00081-GKF-JFJ).
Note: Pat McGuigan of The City Sentinel newspaper prepared this story for posting, working from a press release provided by Houda Elyazgi of Saxum, a public relations firm with offices in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. 

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