Douglas County launching local program to restore people’s legal competency as they await trial

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People who are booked into jails statewide have long waited several months — even more than a year — for beds at state mental hospitals, so their competency to understand court proceedings can be restored. Douglas County is now working on a local solution to that problem.

The Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council heard a report about the program Tuesday morning. The county plans to launch the new process on April 1.

The district attorney’s office cannot prosecute people who are not mentally competent to participate in their own defense, Douglas County DA Suzanne Valdez said Tuesday. Katy Fitzgerald, criminal justice coordinator for the county, said defendants are now seeing an average wait of about 14 months before a bed opens for them at a state mental hospital.

But “A recent change in state legislation allowed counties — if they met certain conditions — to conduct competency evaluations and orders for restoration without sending those in custody to Larned or Osawatomie state hospitals,” according to a news release from the sheriff’s office.

The local program will aim to do that much more quickly, and much closer to home for many participants. Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center staff members will report to district court judges on defendants’ progress and treatment.

The program will include “medication over objection,” meaning people could be forced to take their medication if necessary. Some CJCC members and a member of the public raised concerns about that.

Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister said if necessary, jail staff members would use a WRAP system to restrain defendants, which he described as “basically a tortilla that you would you wrap this person into that secures them.” That would allow providers to inject them with medicine, and then they’d be monitored, he said.

Bob Tryanski, director of behavioral health projects for Douglas County, said he believes this has the potential to be “one of the most significant things to happen in our justice system since we started doing this work together eight or nine years ago.”

“The harm that will happen — not might happen, but will happen — by a person sitting in jail for a year without medication, proper intervention, and the opportunity to start to experience relief of symptoms will be more damaging than anything else that we’re talking about at the table here,” he said.

Tryanski said this would benefit people because they would have a dedicated local medical team to handle their care, also.

Douglas County Chief District Judge James McCabria said no one will be ordered to receive medications or injections until there has been a finding that they are not competent.


“I don’t know the clinical side, but I’m sure there’s instances where right away somebody can make that determination. But that request has to come back and be presented to the court for the order to come forward,” he said.

Fitzgerald presented this slide of how the process will work. She said in this context, “outpatient” means that defendants will not be in a hospital or facility but rather in the jail. There will be a team of clinicians “fully embedded into the operations of the jail facility,” she said.

This flow chart presented to the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council on March 12, 2024 shows how the local competency restoration process will work. (Screenshot)

Members of the work group that developed the plan included Armbrister, Major Gary Bunting of the DGSO corrections division; co-facilitators Patrick Schmitz, CEO of Bert Nash and Fitzgerald; McCabria; Paul Leffingwell, forensic services team leader for Bert Nash at the Douglas County Jail; Andrea Diaz Buezo of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas; Tryanski; and clinical and administrative staff from the Bert Nash Center, according to the release.

See the full presentation on the Douglas County YouTube channel,

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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