DENVER (AP) – Colorado inmates are languishing in local jails without mental health evaluations or mental health care because the state hospital is short-staffed, an advocacy group charged Tuesday.

The Disability Law Center said the state is violating a federal court settlement requiring the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo to admit inmates within 28 days after a judge orders a competency evaluation or rules an inmate is incompetent to stand trial.

“These are people who are locked in a jail and they have no means to obtain mental health treatment other than through (the) state,” said Iris Eytan, an attorney for the Disability Law Center. Some are disrupting the jails because of their illness and wind up charged with additional crimes while they wait, she said.

The state Department of Human Services, which oversees the state hospital, acknowledged that 74 inmates have currently waited longer than 28 days, including 17 who have waited 70 days or longer.

Officials are working on a solution, said Dr. Patrick Fox, the department’s chief medical officer. He maintains the state technically hasn’t violated the court settlement because it has asked the Disability Law Center to agree to a temporary waiver.

The center has given the department until Sept. 3 to come up with a detailed report. If the center isn’t satisfied with the state’s response, it could ask a federal judge to step in and order the state to speed up admissions, Eytan said.

Fox said the Colorado hospital, like others nationwide, is struggling to fill vacant jobs. The nursing department has 81 openings out of 491 positions.

Fox also said the number of inmates ordered by judges to undergo competency evaluations has more than doubled in nine years, from 681 in the 2005-06 fiscal year to 1,533 in 2014-15. Rob McCallum, a spokesman for the court system, said the reason for the increase wasn’t clear.

The dispute is over inmates who have been charged with a crime but have not gone to trial. Some are awaiting an evaluation to determine if they’re mentally competent to stand trial. Others have been found incompetent and are awaiting treatment at the state hospital in an attempt to restore them to competency.

“These people are absolutely helpless and they are at the mercy of the Department (of Human Services),” Eytan said.

The department reached a settlement with the Disability Law Center – then known as the Legal Center for People with Disabilities and Older People – in 2012 after the center filed suit in U.S. District Court alleging chronic delays in competency evaluations and treatment.

The department agreed to the 28-day limit on wait times and was meeting the deadline until about early June of this year, when the hospital said it could admit only one person a day on most days because of staffing shortages, Fox said.

– By Dan Elliott, AP Writer

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