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Kansas inmates wait in jail for months for mental health treatment. That might change

The Douglas County Jail in Lawrence
Dylan Lysen
Kansas News Service
The Douglas County Jail houses about 10 inmates who are on a waiting list to receive mental health services the Larned State Hospital. They must receive care there before they can stand trial. They can sit on the waiting list for more than a year.

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office is working with local mental health providers to cut down the state’s notoriously long wait times to provide services to inmates declared incompetent to stand trial.

LAWRENCE, Kansas — Inmates in jail in Douglas County who are accused of crimes but unable to stand trial because of mental health struggles may soon receive needed care much sooner.

That would allow them to resolve their cases faster and avoid waiting in a jail cell for more than a year in some cases before they can even defend themselves in court.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and local mental health care providers are launching a new program next month that will administer outpatient mental health care to those inmates. The initiative aims to restore their competency so they can stand trial and move on with their lives.

The new program is believed to be the first of its kind at the local level and would help address a statewide backlog of inmates waiting for evaluations and competency restoration services at state hospitals in Larned and Osawatomie. It will be funded by a state grant.

Patrick Schmitz, CEO for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center in Lawrence, said the program may be able to reduce the number of local inmates on the waitlist.

“Thus, getting them their day in court sooner,” Schmitz said, “and then getting them out of the jail and back into the community and continuing to help them in their recovery journey.”

The state hospitals have long been plagued by a waitlist that leaves some inmates languishing in jail up to 14 months before they are ever treated. Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister said inmates can spend more time in jail waiting – without ever being convicted – than the prison time they are ultimately sentenced to.

One man spent six years in custody going back and forth to receive mental health care while waiting to stand trial on charges that he was eventually convicted of and sentenced to only 16 months. Armbrister said that the inmate was stuck in jail for much longer than he needed to be because of the backlog.

“It’s stasis,” Armbrister said in an interview. “You’re just stuck and you can’t go forward or backward.”

When a person struggling with mental health issues is accused of a crime, a judge in the Kansas court system may determine they are not fit to stand trial. It's because their illness prevents them from participating in their own defense. 

That judge will then order the inmate to receive health care aimed at restoring competency to stand trial. Until recently, those services were required to be provided at a state hospital.

But there are many more inmates who need services than those hospitals can take in, creating the long wait time. Armbrister said the Douglas County jail houses about 10 inmates who are on the waiting list, and they could wait more than a year before a state hospital will take them in.

A law passed in 2022 opened the door for counties to take treatment into their own hands. Armbrister hopes it will help expand the state’s bandwidth to treat the inmates and shrink the waitlist.

“What we can do is get one or two of those people off of that list,” Armbrister said. “Not only does that free up a bed or two for our people to go (to a state hospital) but for the rest of the state.”

Patrick Schmitz, CEO of Bert Nash Community Mental Health Care, stands in front of a sign for the facility.
Dylan Lysen
Kansas News Service
Patrick Schmitz, CEO for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Care in Lawrence, hopes a new initiative with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office will help keep local inmates of a state-wide backlog to receive mental health care at Larned State Hospital.

Bert Nash has long provided mental health services to Douglas County inmates, but they have not been able to help when an inmate refuses care. Only the state hospitals had the authority to mandate mental health care to restore competency.

The recent law change means the local mental health care providers can also administer those mandated services at their community facility. Schmitz said it’s an important step to shortening the waitlist at the state hospitals.

“My grand hope is that we have to send very few people to Larned,” Schmitz said, “and we help those individuals have a better quality of life.”

The state is also working to help reduce the backlog. The Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, which oversees the state hospitals, announced in January that a plot of land in southwest Wichita will house the future South Central Regional Psychiatric Hospital. The state expects the facility to open in early 2027 and part of its mission will be to restore competency for inmates.

Cara Sloan-Ramos, a spokesperson for the department, said the state also appreciates Douglas County launching a local program made possible by the recent law change.

“By utilizing this tool, Douglas County has further underscored its commitment to increasing access to competency evaluations and mental health services,” Sloan-Ramos said in an email. “This partnership will also help those outside of the county by relieving pressure within the existing system.”

Meanwhile, the long waiting list at Larned State Hospital is facing scrutiny. The ACLU of Kansas sued the state over its waiting list, arguing that the backlog is unconstitutional. That case is ongoing.

Dylan Lysen reports on social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Threads @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

As the Kansas social services and criminal justice reporter, I want to inform our audience about how the state government wants to help its residents and keep their communities safe. Sometimes that means I follow developments in the Legislature and explain how lawmakers alter laws and services of the state government. Other times, it means questioning the effectiveness of state programs and law enforcement methods. And most importantly, it includes making sure the voices of everyday Kansans are heard. You can reach me at dlysen@kcur.org, 816-235-8027 or on Threads, @DylanLysen.