DENVER (CBS4) — A judge is being asked to appoint a specialist to help ensure that the state hospital at Pueblo promptly determines whether a backlog of criminal defendants are mentally competent to stand trial. The request is the latest development in a lawsuit against the hospital because it and its parent agency are not promptly determining whether hundreds of pre-trial detainees lingering in county jails are competent to have their day in court.

(file photo credit: JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images)

The request was made in U.S. District Court for Colorado by Disability Law Colorado, an office that advocates for disabled persons in Colorado, including the detainees who are in jails all over the state. They are there because judges think they may not be competent. State mental health staff have to tell judges whether those defendants are competent. Until that happens, judges can’t move the cases forward for juries to determine if the defendants are guilty.

The lawsuit — which has been ongoing since 2011 — was filed by Disability Law Colorado. It claims that the hospital and its parent agency are violating the constitutional rights of the detainees by allowing them to remain in jail, rather than quickly determining if they are competent to be put on trial.

The defendants being detained are charged with a wide variety of crimes, ranging from low-level ones all the way to murder.

Magistrate Judge Nina Wang, who is overseeing the case, has given the hospital and its parent agency until Dec. 14 to submit to her a plan to remedy their failures to meet a required timeframe to conduct competency evaluations..

The hospital is the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo and its parent agency is the state Department of Human Services, headquartered in Denver.

They have not yet replied in court to Thursday’s request for the judge to appoint an forensics systems psychologist expert to serve Wang. The specialist would assist the judge with getting the hospital and DHS into compliance with a requirement to provide the evaluations within 28 days of judges’ orders for the evaluations.

Judges of state courts across Colorado have for many years ordered the department to conduct the evaluations so the judges can rule whether particular defendants are not competent to stand trial due to mental illness. They are presumed innocent under the law while they are awaiting trial.

Disability Law Colorado says the most recent data shows the average wait time was at least 58.6 days and the longest wait time was 186 days.

Wang has scheduled a multi-day hearing to begin March 18 in her Denver courtroom to hear arguments regarding what she should do to remedy the delays.

She ruled several weeks ago that the state is out of compliance with the 28-day timeframe.

The department has said it does not have the physical capacity “to keep up with the extraordinary demand (from state judges overseeing the cases of some criminal defendants) for evaluations and mental health restorations, which has continued to increase at an exponential rate.”

The 28-day deadline was agreed to in 2016 by state and Disability Law Colorado. Wang has ruled that the state broke the agreement by not meeting the timeframe.

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