A federal judge in Buffalo says he’ll dismiss charges against an accused vandal if the Department of Justice doesn’t get him into a psychiatric facility by the end of January.
The ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Roemer is the latest in a series of decisions from federal judges nationwide who’ve grown impatient with ballooning wait times for defendants deemed mentally incompetent. Instead of receiving treatment in psychiatric hospitals, mentally ill inmates presumed innocent are languishing in jails.
Prosecutors have said there isn’t a bed available for Jones Woods, who’s been jailed for nearly a year after being arrested for allegedly throwing rocks through windows at the U.S. attorney’s office in downtown Buffalo. The FBI says Woods told arresting officers he wanted to go to federal prison.
Prosecutors haven’t yet responded to Roemer’s ruling.
But Martin Vogelbaum, Woods’ lawyer, has appealed Roemer’s decision granting the justice department until Jan. 31 to find a bed. In a Dec. 15 letter to the judge, Vogelbaum says that, under current federal law, charges should be dismissed if a bed isn’t found by Jan. 20.
The appeal now is before U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Vilardo.
Woods, 61, has a history of mental illness. He’s refused to attend court since last spring, when he was removed from a courtroom after disrupting proceedings. In June, Roemer found him incompetent to stand trial. In August, the judge ordered the Department of Justice to put Woods in a mental health facility.
But Woods remains in jail. The Department of Justice says there’s a backlog and no alternatives to federal Bureau of Prisons psychiatric facilities, so mentally incompetent defendants presumed innocent must wait as long as 10 months before receiving treatment so they can stand trial. Target dates vary in court documents filed by prosecutors, who’ve said Woods might have to wait until February for treatment. Experts say about 80 percent of incompetent defendants, given treatment, are restored to mental fitness.
The system isn’t moving fast enough for Roemer, who set a deadline in a Dec. 21 ruling: If Woods isn’t transferred from jail to treatment by Jan. 31, depredation of property charges will be dismissed.
Roemer’s edict marks the third time, at least, that federal judges since 2021 have threatened to dismiss charges if defendants deemed incompetent don’t get treatment.
In 2022, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court Of Appeals ordered an accused stalker into treatment within seven days after he’d been waiting eight months.
“We need not decide whether the statute (putting Department of Justice in charge of treatment) allows some amount of pre-hospitalization confinement because the delay here falls outside any constitutional reading of the statute,” the court wrote.
Threatened with dismissal of charges, the Department of Justice in that case found a bed within a week.
A year earlier, in 2021, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., dismissed charges against an accused carjacker after he’d waited five months for a bed. Prosecutors subsequently filed charges in the district’s Superior Court, the equivalent of a state court.
Wait times for treatment in the federal system exceed wait times for defendants in state courts, whose numbers surpass the number of defendants found incompetent by federal judges.
Fewer than 400 federal defendants are found unfit to stand trial each year, with a wait time of eight to 10 months for treatment, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons, which is tasked with restoring mental competency.
In New York state, where nearly 1,000 defendants are found unfit in state courts, the average wait time is 90 days.
A judge last summer levied a $100 million fine against Washington state for failure to abide by a lawsuit settlement requiring treatment within seven days. The wait time in Washington was 63 days in October.