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Justice hurt by hospital cuts

Bed shortage delays mental health tests, help in legal cases

On July 14, Michael Kirsch, a 27-year-old Provo man charged with aggravated assault, was found mentally incompetent to stand trial and remanded to the Utah State Hospital for treatment.

After 90 days, the hospital was to report Kirsch's mental status to the court. But so far, Kirsch hasn't even left his cell at the Utah County Jail. The problem?

There aren't enough beds at the mental hospital.

Since July 2002, when the hospital was forced to cut beds or cut staff, the average wait to get into the forensic wing, where those awaiting trial are sent, has gone from days to weeks, sometimes months.

Before July 1, 2002, the hospital had 100 beds in its forensic wing, with a waiting list of three to four people. It now has 74 beds, with a waiting list that ranges from 13 to 19.

For people like Kirsch, who can't post bail, this means months in jail. Kirsh has been in jail since he was arrested in March.

"Once it's been determined that he's not competent he needs to be treated," said Kirsch's attorney, Utah County public defender Tom Means. "Instead he's sitting in jail without being convicted of any crime."

Means said his office has a half dozen clients who are either in the same situation, or soon will be. One local politician said a relative in need of treatment waited three months in the county jail before a bed opened up for him at the hospital.

"Our Legislature doesn't want to deal with the problem," Means said. "We have an inordinate amount of mentally ill people in our criminal justice system, and we treat them as best we can, but the Legislature has got to step up and allocate more funding."

Reopening the 26 beds the hospital eliminated in 2002 is the top priority of the Utah Department of Human Services, said spokesperson Carol Sisco. Cutting those beds, the result of a staggering budget deficit, saved the state $1.7 million. Putting them back in use will cost $2.5 million, Sisco said.

Sisco says the the length of stay in the forensics wing varies depending on the patient. If the patient is not found mentally competent to stand trial after 90 days, the hospital is required to report again to the court after a year. The average stay in the hospital for all patients is nine months.

In November 2003, hospital workers told the Deseret Morning News that the forensics wing, which has housed some of the most infamous killers in Utah history, is understaffed and sometimes dangerous. Psychiatric technicians said they sometimes found themselves alone with 2 dozen patients.

State Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said he is aware of the problems the hospital faces and plans to push for more funding at the 2005 legislative session.

"The difficulty that we've got as a state is in the last three years we've had some real financial difficulties," he said. "But this is something we need to address."


E-mail: jhyde@desnews.com