Circuit judge opposes placement of facility

Published 2:12 am Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Hours before the official announcement of a secure forensics mental health facility planned for Andalusia, Circuit Judge Lex Short expressed concerns about problems the facility might eventually pose for the community.

Judge Short appeared at Tuesday morning’s county commission meeting. The commission partnered with

South Central Alabama Mental Health and the Alabama Department of Mental Health to locate the facility in Andalusia. Commissioners purchased the property for the facility, five acres adjacent to the county admin building, for $60,000 in December.

But what commissioners see as an “economic development project,” Short sees as a potential

“What this place is, is a place to administer care for individuals who have been charged with a crime but have been found incompetent to stand trial,” Short said. “It is for the criminally insane. They call it a forensic mental facility, but this is what it is, a place for the criminally insane. Some judge made the decision that this person was mentally incompetent and said that they have to do something with him and if he gets the right type of treatment then he will be O.K. enough to stand trial.”

Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility in Tuscaloosa, which has 140 total beds, has long housed the criminally insane in Alabama. Short said the new center planed for Andalusia is like a “mini Taylor Hardin.”

He also questioned the placement of the facility in a rural area, adding that building additional beds at Taylor Hardin – adjacent to a major university which helps provide services – makes more sense to him.

He said that though the documents say that this facility would be short term, it isn’t clear how long short term is.

“If you read the wording in these documents, it says that a prisoner can be in the facility for up to six months and then the judge that sent him there has to have a hearing to determine whether or not he is now competent to stand trial,” Short said. “That is not the end of it though, because the law then states that the judge can issue a renewal order for up to a year and it doesn’t limit how many renewing orders he can issue. So, if this is indeed a short term facility, it isn’t written in concrete.”

Another concern that Short has is the type of people that would be coming into Covington County because of the facility.

“A person is locked in one of these facilities because of two things, because he has been charged with a crime and a judge, usually with a recommendation of a psychiatrist, has determined that he is not safe to be out in public, so he has to be put in one of these facilities,” Short said. “But a judge can also decide after that six month period that he is still incompetent to stand trial, but not think that he is a danger anymore, so he can be let out. Now, how does that affect us? Naturally, you think that he would go back to Jefferson County or wherever he came from, but nothing in this law says that he has to do that.”

According to Alabama Code 22-54-4, patients without legal encumbrances may be discharged directly from the facility upon concurrence of the superintendent of the facility and the head of the referring institution, agency, governmental body or court.

“My point is, when they say ‘may’ it means that it could happen, right here,” Short said. “So how would that actually play out? Let’s say that somebody gets charged with a crime in Jefferson County.  Let’s say he has been down here for sixth months, and the judge in Jefferson County sets a hearing and after he has the hearing normally he isn’t going to decide right then. A few days later when the judge gets around to it, he’ll say, ‘You know, I think that he is still incompetent, but based on what the psychiatrist told me, he is not a danger anymore, so I’m going to let him be out on his bond.’ Well while he was in jail, let’s say that his grandmother went ahead and posted his bond. When they call Jefferson County and tell them that his bond has already been made, do you think that they are going to come and get him? I don’t know if they are or not, but the rules talk about the sheriff from the county he is from coming and taking him back and forth for a hearing, it doesn’t say anything about picking him up when he is out of jail.”

Circuit Court Judge Benjamin Bowden also attended the commission meeting.

“The folks that are going to be coming could be anyone charged with a crime, from misdemeanor to capital murder,” Bowden said. “But you tend to see these mental competency issues arise in the more serious crimes. If it is a misdemeanor or some low level crime, communities know who that person is and they know that maybe they have some limitations or disabilities and those things get worked out. Most of the time, this back and forth to Taylor Hardin and competency hearings are dealing with people who have committed very serious crimes and they are using that as a defense in their case to try to minimize what happens to them. I couldn’t say exactly who would come to our facility, but I think you can expect it to be people who are charged with violent, serious offenses. We need to expect that, whether it is that way or not.”

In an afternoon follow-up interview, Short said the commission should have gotten public input before moving forward with the facility.

“I know what I’ve seen in 30 years,” he said. “We need these facilities in the state. And I’m not saying our community is any better than any other. But I want to commission to understand what they’ve gotten.

“I have no confidence this will be properly funded and staffed by the state of Alabama when nothing else is,” he said.

Commissioner Joe Barton said that Short brought a lot of good points up and they will be cautious with bringing this facility to Covington County.

“I think with some proper understanding and agreements we can do this,” Barton said. “It is definitely something that we have looked into like with staffing and they say they are going to provide, but we have no guarantee. I do feel confident because the government is pushing hard and I think they will try to make it work as best as they can.”

Commissioner Tony Holmes said that he completely agrees with Short.

“We asked as many questions as we were educated enough to ask,” Holmes said. “I definitely don’t want anything here that would cause a harm to this community. You just never know what could happen in this situation. I have been around long enough to know that.”