Competency exams strain hospitals, jails, courts

Target 8

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Murder charges stalled or even dropped; mentally ill defendants languishing in jail for months; victims’ families told justice could take months or never come at all.

It’s a growing problem in Michigan: A glut of competency examinations is slowing the justice system — and in some cases, grinding it to a halt.

When someone is accused of committing a crime, a judge asks if they understand the charges against them. In cases where the defendant can’t comprehend what’s happening, a competency exam is requested.

State officials say there are many, many more people who need examinations than there are doctors to conduct them.

“We are dealing with numbers that the system is not equipped to handle right now,” Judge David Buter, the chief justice for the 61st District Court in Grand Rapids, said. “Every day, every one of the judges on the benches is in court seeing people who in a perfect world would not be in the criminal justice system.”

People like Nathan Board, who investigators say admitted to entering his in-laws’ southeast Kent County home last year while they slept and beating them to death with a hammer. Or Brian Zanetti, who investigators say walked into a Battle Creek tile shop in 2017 and shot his cousin in the head.

Right now, 53 of the roughly 1,100 inmates in the Kent County Correctional Facility are simply waiting on an exam.

“It’s difficult,” Undersheriff Chuck DeWitt said. “It’s a stress on staff, a stress on inmates.

“Ever since about 2013, we have identified a problem where we cannot process the inmates as quickly as we would like to,” he continued.

Jails across West Michigan are seeing the same thing, with some saying they need more beds as a result.

If it’s determined that a defendant could become competent with treatment, the court hits pause on the case. Defendants sit in jail until they are able to get into a state hospital for help, but staying there can further damage their mental health.

And state psychiatric hospitals have been closing since the 1980s, decreasing from 16 to only four, so it’s a long line. State records show the average wait time for an exam last year was nearly five months.

Some people, like Brian Zanetti, wait longer — so much longer that the case was dropped indefinitely.

Everyone has the right to a speedy trial. Michigan law says that if a suspect is not found competent to stand trial within 15 months of arrest, the case can’t go forward.

In December 2018, as the 15 months ran out, the Calhoun County prosecutor was forced to dismiss the case against Zanetti. He remains in a state hospital, where he has been since September 2017 and where he’ll stay until he is deemed fit for trial.

It’s unclear if the Frankie Zanetti’s family will ever see justice. The victim’s brother declined an on-camera interview with Target 8, saying it’s too painful to discuss the case publicly, but he did say he’s frustrated.

“There is a delay in the justice that’s provided … From the victim’s perspective, they feel no less a victim whether the person accused is competent or not,” Judge Buter said. “They (the victim or victim’s family) are going through a difficult process and the process is made even more difficult when the process screeches to a halt.”

Judges have become so fed up that they have sent orders forcing the immediate transfer of defendants, but that has only added to the delay for other people waiting to get in. It got so bad that the state court administrator sent out a letter telling judges to stop.

“Prosecutors, judges, jails, everybody is complaining,” Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker said. “Everybody recognizes there is a problem. You complain, but who do you complain to?”

On Thursday afternoon, Target 8 learned that Kent County had worked out a signed agreement (PDF) to send misdemeanor offenders to Network180, the county’s community mental health authority, for care. At the same time, charges will be dismissed.

Kent is the first county in the state to create such an agreement, and there’s an effort to get others on board. Doing so would ease the load for state hospitals, but it’s not a fix.

Becker said the problem is more complex than adding more state hospitals and doctors. He sits on a board dedicated to finding solutions, which hopes to have a more complete plan to implement by the end of the summer.

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