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Inmates deemed incompetent for trial wait months in Missouri jails for services

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Jail Cell Bars Cast Shadows

Prison bars cast shadows.  

ST. LOUIS — After numerous interactions with law enforcement, Jose L. Gonzalez was arrested once more in March 2020. This time there was a federal warrant in connection to two meth cases in Jefferson County.

In one, he’d overstayed his time at a hotel in November 2017. When officers showed up, they allegedly found drugs in partially opened bags in his room. One month later, responding to a suspicious person call, police found him hiding behind a business with a duffel bag.

Gonzalez was charged in federal court here with two counts of possession with intent to distribute meth. But since then, his federal case has been slowed by the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic and poor access to mental health treatment.

After many setbacks, Gonzalez, 43, of south St. Louis County, was deemed incompetent in April, which brought his case to a halt. He’s currently held as a federal detainee at the Dent County Jail in the Ozarks. Treatment to potentially get him on track is backlogged at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri.

Jail officials wouldn’t comment about Gonzalez, referring questions to the U.S. Marshals office in St. Louis, which didn’t return telephone messages left over the past week.

His public defender, Eric Selig, was getting concerned about Gonzalez being stuck in the system.

“The reason we talk every week is because he’s saying, ‘What’s going on? Why haven’t they moved me?’” said Selig.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons, or BOP, told the Post-Dispatch on Friday there’s an eight-month delay for treatment to begin after a court order for competency restoration is issued.

“That’s crazy,” said Selig, soaking in the information.

Gonzalez is one of about 135 people awaiting competency restoration services in Springfield, one of three BOP facilities nationwide that provide the treatment.

“Given the complexity of these services, the facilities that complete competency restoration can only take a specific number of cases each month,” BOP spokesman Scott Taylor said by email. “This ratio is based on current staffing levels as well as the need to ensure the facility is able to maintain a safe and secure environment by allocating only the number of defendants they can safely accommodate.”

He added: “The BOP is using innovative solutions to address these issues, including the creation of additional restoration programs.”

Since the 1960s, competency evaluation requests have doubled to about 50,000 a year for adults, according to a 2019 review of literature in the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law. The article noted that treatment is usually successful yet some states have resource problems that cause defendants to “spend considerable counterproductive time in jails awaiting the availability of a hospital bed.”

Missouri’s state system is also backlogged. There are 201 people in jail with court orders for competency restoration at Missouri Department of Mental Health hospitals. State officials said they are looking at ways to expand capacity, including at the St. Louis Forensic Treatment Center.

People like Gonzalez, seemed to raise a lot of red flags before he ended up in the federal system. Responding to a trespassing call, St. John police arrested Gonzalez in April 2017 for possession of a controlled substance. Later that year, in September, he was accused of trespassing and drug possession after he returned to the High Ridge Walmart following an argument with store representatives. Less than two weeks later, Ste. Genevieve County deputies came across him, responding to a burglary in progress call.

“The subject was rapid in his speech and difficult to understand,” Deputy Lance Pippin wrote in a report that supported a misdemeanor drug possession charge.

Deputy Pippin said he also found a BB gun, similar to a firearm, tucked in Gonzalez’s waistband.

“The subject asked if I could keep the BB gun a secret because he didn’t want people knowing it was fake,” Pippin wrote.

The two incidents that led to his federal indictment followed in November and December 2017. Though he spent some time in the St. Louis County Jail, it’s unclear what Gonzalez was doing until his March 2020 arrest for the federal case.

But he seemed to be struggling, according to Nanci McCarthy, a previous federal public defender who represented Gonzalez. According to June 2020 court records, she requested more time to prepare his case because Gonzalez had “mental health and intellectual limitations” that hindered his ability to adequately understand the allegations against him. By the end of that year, McCarthy requested further assistance from a “cognitive expert” to find better ways to communicate with and help Gonzalez.

In a previous matter, McCarthy noted in court records, Gonzalez had been held in a state psychiatric facility for over six months while he was treated and restored to competency before his criminal case could move forward. Court records say Gonzalez suffers from “a severe head injury” and has “very limited intellectual capacity.”

In September 2021, Gonzalez pleaded guilty to the federal meth case. Sentencing was set for Jan. 2, 2022, but that never happened. He underwent a thorough mental exam. Based on the results, on April 20, the court ordered that he be committed to treatment to restore competency.

If the backlog is indeed eight months, Gonzalez should by transferred from the Dent County Jail to the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, in December — five years after the meth crimes in question took place.

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