HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has corrected a decades-old flaw in state law that kept seriously mentally ill people behind bars indefinitely, highlighting enduring problems for the man at the center of the case and others like him.
The court’s September ruling in Commonwealth v. Jquan Humphrey paved the way for judges to dismiss charges against defendants who would never be deemed competent to attend their own trial, a long-standing confusion in state law.
Humphrey has been in prison in Pennsylvania since 2009 when he shot and seriously injured two people at the age of 16.
About five years into his sentence, he allegedly threw a urine bag that hit a guard at a Center County state penitentiary. Two months later he is said to have spat on another guard.
A Center County prosecutor pressed charges, but in 2019, Center County Court of Common Pleas Judge Brian Marshall found that Humphrey suffered from longstanding and serious mental health problems. He ruled that Humphrey had no standing to stand trial and in February 2022 dismissed the charges.
Pennsylvania’s Mental Health Procedures Act of 1976 protects people who might be “incompetent” to stand trial for participating in a legal process that they do not understand.
It requires the court to determine whether, with treatment, these individuals can regain their competency and resume their case.
But the law, which lawmakers passed nearly 50 years ago and haven’t updated significantly, gives ambiguous instructions about what to do when someone isn’t competent and, for various reasons, never will be. This lack of clarity creates particular problems for people with intellectual disabilities, brain injuries, or cognitive disorders such as dementia.
Taken together, these problems with the law left people with severe, terminal mental illness effectively trapped behind bars, endlessly awaiting a trial they could never attend.
Asked to resolve the issue in 1988, the then state Supreme Court said that despite the “Futility” the retrial of charges against someone who “will most likely never stand trial”, the wording of the law compelled them to do so.
In Humphrey’s case, the Center County prosecutor appealed the judge’s decision to dismiss the charges in Superior Court. The court reinstated the charges, citing the 1988 case. Humphrey’s attorneys appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court’s new decision overturned the 1988 Supreme Court. The previous interpretation of the law admitted this “Unreasonable Consequences” and “believes that such a result was intended by the legislature”, Chief Justice Max Baer wrote for the court in his majority opinion.
“We respectfully disagree” he wrote.
Judges Kevin Dougherty and Sallie Updyke Mundy disagreed.
The opinion gives courts the power to drop a case when it’s clear the defendant will never be able to attend his or her own defense, said Bradley Bridge, an attorney with Philadelphia Defenders, a firm that provides free counsel to people who can’t afford it Defense offers advice.
“All we wanted was that the trial court judge, who may have observed the client for years, have the opportunity to dismiss the charges in his or her discretion, taking into account the length of time involved and the reasons why it would be unfair to dismiss the to continue prosecution.” said Bridge, whose firm filed an amicus brief in the Humphrey case. “It was just unfair that the district attorney bringing the charges had exclusive power.”
The state Supreme Court remanded Humphrey’s case to a lower court for further resolution.
But September’s verdict still leaves a significant obstacle for people already in state prison, declining mentally behind bars and facing new charges. It is unclear how many people are in this situation as the state does not prosecute these cases.
Torrance and Norristown State Hospitals — both operated by the Department of Human Services — are the only state facilities that offer restorative capacity treatments, but they do not admit people who are already serving a sentence in state prison.
While the Mental Health Procedures Act gives the department the power to involuntarily admit patients to state hospitals, including those charged with a felony, the law does not establish a procedure for people who have already served a time in a prison, DHS said spokesman Brandon Cwalina in an email.
“The law does not provide a procedure for the involuntary commitment of individuals to mental health, as Mr. [Humphrey]who are convicted of criminal offenses and sentenced to imprisonment or imprisonment”, wrote Cvalina.
In his majority opinion, Baer repeatedly pointed out the lack of treatment options available to Humphrey.
“Any change in the laws and regulations governing admissions to state hospitals would require legislative action or regulatory changes,” said Cwalina.
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