Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Christopher Abbott expressed frustration with state attorneys from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) for their delay in conducting mental health evaluations for criminal defendants. The issue was raised during a hearing for Todd Tonkin, who is charged with felony arson for setting fire to the Center for Mental Health in Helena. Abbott criticized the department for ignoring his order to evaluate Tonkin and issue a report on his mental health within a reasonable timeframe.
The delays in mental health evaluations have been a recurring problem in Montana’s criminal justice system, leading to dismissed charges and taxpayer-funded settlements. In one case, charges were dismissed against a Great Falls man who had stabbed someone 27 times due to a delay of 1,179 days, with 800 days attributed to institutional delay. Another man received settlements after waiting 577 days without medication for a court-ordered evaluation.
The state’s behavioral health apparatus has been hindered by budget cuts since 2017, resulting in employee shortages and limited resources. The Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs, which handles criminal evaluations and defendants’ mental health needs, has only one full-time psychiatrist. The average wait time for a bed at the facility is six months for men and over 12 months for women.
DPHHS attorneys cited limited resources and bureaucratic policies as reasons for the delays in mental health evaluations. They acknowledged the need for additional resources and providers to address the bottlenecks in the system. The cost of evaluations, which are increasingly being ordered by the court, is approximately $150 per hour.
Judge Abbott expressed his concern over the high level of frustration among District Court judges in the state and raised the possibility of holding DPHHS in contempt. The delays in mental health evaluations have raised questions about the state’s ability to meet the rising mental health needs in the criminal justice system.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services is currently working to understand the reasons behind the increase in court-ordered evaluations. Possible factors include increased awareness of mental health issues and potential abuse of the system.