By Associated Press - Tuesday, July 21, 2020

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - State prosecutors have dropped at least one criminal case because overcrowding at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute caused wait times so long that due process protections were violated.

The Alaska Court of Appeals ruled the case of a mentally incompetent Juneau man had to be dismissed because he was imprisoned for nearly a year while awaiting space in the Anchorage mental health institute, The Anchorage Daily News reported Saturday.

The man identified only by the initials J.K. was accused of a misdemeanor but deemed mentally ill and unfit to stand trial without treatment.

Alaska policy mandates holding mentally ill defendants in jails or in hospital emergency rooms when treatment is unavailable.

State law requires residents accused of felonies who are deemed mentally incompetent to undergo treatment in an attempt for them to be competent to stand trial. A judge decides whether treatment is required in misdemeanor cases.

The state-owned psychiatric institute is the only location with “competency restoration treatment,” but it has only 10 beds available for the service. State law prohibits out-of-state treatment.

The appeals court decision reinforces a ruling by a Fairbanks judge last year calling for an end to the practice.

J.K. was arrested in March 2018, accused of threatening a Juneau restaurant patron with a butter knife. He was imprisoned for 143 days by the time he was appointed a public defender who requested a mental health competency evaluation.

After he had spent 149 days in prison, a judge ordered him to undergo treatment at the psychiatric institute, which listed him as number 26 on a waiting list a month later.

“The amount of time that this seriously mentally ill defendant remained in jail awaiting competency restoration treatment is unacceptable,” Chief Judge Marjorie Allard wrote on behalf of a three-judge panel.

The court declined to set a deadline for transfers to Alaska Psychiatric Institute but said holding J.K. for such a long time period violated his constitutional rights.

A separate case in Anchorage could set a deadline for Alaska, the court said.

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