Brandon Carl Reeder

Brandon Carl Reeder, 17, stands as charges are read against him during his initial appearance in April 2015 at the Natrona County Townsend Justice Center in Casper. Reeder was held at the Wyoming State Hospital after being deemed unfit to stand trial. The hospital is performing more evaluation than it did in the past. 

Dan Cepeda, Star-Tribune

The number of court-ordered mental evaluations the Wyoming State Hospital performs for criminal cases has steadily grown over the past decade, increasing wait times and lengthening court procedures, attorneys say.

The longer waits delay resolution for defendants, increase the workloads of prosecutors and public defenders and extend the stressful period of time that victims wait for justice, the attorneys said.

“Imagine being the victim of a violent crime and four months go by and (the defendant) hasn’t even had a preliminary hearing,” Natrona County District Attorney Mike Blonigen said. “It just backs everything up.”

In fiscal year 2015, the hospital performed 232 competency evaluations for the courts — more than double the amount in 2000, according to data from the hospital. Between fiscal years 2000 and 2004, the hospital completed an average of 131 forensic evaluations per year. Between fiscal years 2011 and 2015, the hospital performed an average of 193 annually.

The most recent figures show that between March 2016 and March 2017 the hospital completed 261 exams.

The psychiatric hospital performs two types of evaluations for the criminal court system: One determines whether a defendant is competent to stand trial and the other is conducted when someone enters a plea of not guilty by reason of mental deficiency. While some of the exams are completed at the state hospital, many are conducted as outpatient services in county jail facilities.

“While we try to manage that as effectively as we can, sometimes we have a waiting list,” hospital superintendent Rich Dunkley said.

The hospital currently has 10 people under evaluation and 10 people waiting for an exam, Dunkley said. Generally, the wait list varies between seven and 10, he said. The competency evaluations themselves generally take about 30 days.

The hospital employees three full-time evaluators and contracts with four more, who live throughout the state. The full-time evaluators can complete about four competency exams a month.

The issue isn’t reduced funding, Dunkley said. Although the Department of Health, which operates the hospital, has faced cuts over the past few years it has protected the hospital from serious reductions. The hospital is in the process of hiring two more full-time forensic evaluators to keep up with the increased demand. With the additional staff, he thinks the wait times will greatly diminish.

“I’d like to say we’re at a peak, but we’ve seen a pretty steady increase,” Dunkley said. “We keep doing the best we can.”

But the hospital hasn’t been able to keep up with the increased number of requested evaluations, leading to longer wait times for defendants and victims, attorneys say.

A four-month wait for a competency exam is about normal now, district attorney Blonigen said. That wait could extend up to seven months if a defendant needs to be further examined for a plea of not guilty by reason of mental deficiency.

Such pleas are more common in serious felony cases, Blonigen said. In the past year, multiple Natrona County cases have been held up while waiting for evaluations, including that of a teenager accused raping and attempting to kill a 4-year-old girl. In that case, the hospital requested a 45-day extension to complete the defendant’s evaluation “due to the long waiting list for forensic evaluations and the very limited number of evaluators currently at the WSH,” according to court documents. The extension was granted.

Blonigen said he started noticing longer waits about five years ago but that the problem has become increasingly extreme in the past year and a half.

He said a typical turnaround for a competency exam used to be about two months, but now he often sees wait times longer than three months.

“If it’s under 90 days, I’m surprised,” he said.

In the meantime, defendants are often left to sit in county jails while they wait for the evaluation, Blonigen said. It also puts extended stress on the victims of the crime, who have to wait longer for a resolution.

“It’s not good as far as the state’s concerned because witnesses move and memories fade,” he said.

The problem, Blonigen said, is that many people have less access to mental health services as funding for those services falls. People with serious mental health issues are less likely to receive the services that could mitigate their risk of committing crimes. Further, those convicted of a crime are less likely to get the rehabilitation they need during their time in prison and are more likely to re-offend.

“We’re really seeing a snowball effect,” he said. “The criminal justice system has become the dumping ground for the mentally ill.”

Wyoming State Public Defender Diane Lozano said her office has also experienced longer wait times for exams completed at the state hospital, especially in the last year. Wait times for outpatient exams completed elsewhere in the state have remained stable, she said.

The wait time bogs down her public defender’s caseload, but the exams are crucial to meeting a defendant’s right to due process and his or her Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.

Rob Oldham, lead public defender in Natrona County, said it’s become automatic for the hospital to ask for a time extension.

“I think everyone is disappointed in how long they take,” he said.

Dunkley, the hospital superintendent, said he understands the attorneys’ frustrations.

“When you have a court order for a patient to get evaluated, if you’re an attorney you want it done and you want it done yesterday,” he said.

But there are often other factors that affect wait time, like if evaluators need information from outside agencies or if there are difficulties transporting the defendant to the hospital.

“Our intent is to get them in, get them evaluated and get them out in 30 days,” he said. “We have some success with that, but some are longer because of outside variables.”

Follow crime and courts reporter Elise Schmelzer on Twitter @eliseschmelzer

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Star-Tribune reporter Elise Schmelzer covers criminal justice.

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