MONTPELIER — The state’s court system is working its way through a backlog of competency evaluations for those accused of crimes, a backlog caused by a doctor shortage.
The coronavirus pandemic forced most institutions to slow down or stop doing certain things completely, and that includes the state’s court system. Much of what the courts did moved online, with remote hearings becoming the norm and trials prohibited up until last month.
The state Supreme Court has recently reopened most the state’s courthouses as result of the state’s high vaccination percentage.
In response to the pandemic, officials made accommodations to help facilitate competency evaluations where there is a question of someone’s competency who has been charged with a crime. That person is evaluated by a psychiatrist to see whether they are competent to stand trial.
Defender General Matt Valerio said his office made sure there was space available in every county for defendants who needed such an evaluation and his office provided laptops so they could be done remotely.
But there weren’t enough doctors available to conduct these evaluations and that created a backlog.
The state Department of Mental Health is responsible for providing an evaluator when a court orders an evaluation. Because of the pandemic, the department lost evaluators for multiple reasons, such as retirement or moving out of Vermont.
The exact number of evaluators lost throughout the course of the pandemic wasn’t immediately available from the state Friday. But this past spring the state turned to out-of-state doctors to help fill the void.
Andrea DeLaBruere, executive director of the state Agency of Human Services, which oversees the department, said in an email Friday the state has contracted with InnovaTel Telepsychiatry, a telepsychiatry service based out of Erie, Pennsylvania. DeLaBruere said six doctors from that company have performed 30 evaluations since March.
DeLaBruere pointed out the general workforce is struggling to find workers so this issue isn’t specific to competency evaluators.
Valerio said there were about 160 outstanding evaluations about three months ago. She said currently there are 142 evaluations that need to be set up across Vermont. That includes 19 in Washington County and six in Rutland County.
“It is important to realize that while evaluations are happening (thus we are working through the list) the court continues to order new evaluations,” DeLaBruere said.
Valerio said he’s not concerned with the backlog as it stands right now.
“I am not hearing that there is any particular problem with it, only that there was a backlog,” he said.
Defense Attorney Andrew Pappone reported he has clients who are waiting eight or nine months for an evaluation. Valerio said that didn’t surprise him.
“Because evaluations that were ordered last fall didn’t have the people available to do them. The thing is now they do and they are working through that list.”
Vermont Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson said the hope is the backlog will be reduced with the out-of-state doctors on board, as well as improved conditions due to low case counts of the virus in Vermont. But he remained concerned about the backlog.
“If you have someone whose competency is in question, you can’t do anything with the case. The person is literally in a state of limbo as to if they’re not competent, then they should not be involved in the criminal justice system, or it’ll at least change how they’re involved. And if they’re competent, then that case needs to move to the next step,” Grearson said.
Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault said someone who is in crisis and awaiting an evaluation might not be receiving the treatment they need as they wait. Thibault said if the state and defense have come to an agreement on the case, they can’t move forward with the case.
“We’re stuck in a holding pattern until we get that opinion. … In the end, both the offenders and the victims of crime are hurt by waiting in suspense,” he said.
Valerio said the backlog is something to keep an eye on.
“While the issue I think has been addressed and people are working on it, we have to continue to be vigilant about it,” he said.
Valerio said he didn’t think “we’re quite out of the woods” in regards to the pandemic and those who suffer from mental illness have been some of the most impacted by it.