Justice deferred

Eddie Tovar rotted in a Buena Vista County Jail cell for the better part of six years as he awaited the magic moment when he would become mentally competent and ready to stand trial for murdering his brother. He would devolve into deep psychosis in insolation. Then the court system would ship him off to a mental health ward where he would regain some semblance of sanity. Back to jail he goes and into bed with his demons. And so it goes.

Tovar has been in the custody of the state mental ward for the criminally insane at Oakdale for several months, still awaiting trial. Last week, Sheriff Gary Launderville became aware of a bill sent by the state to the county in the amount of $96,000 — in arrears — for state mental health care of a county client. Launderville estimates that the county has paid $400,000 in caring for the defendant.

The sheriff was surprised by the bill. Last winter, Launderville visited with State Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, the top lieutenant in the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office and the Director of the Iowa Department of Corrections. All agreed that BV County should not be assessed the extraordinary fees racked up in Tovar’s case. They promised the state would pick up the tab.

We expect that these state officials will be good on their word. All it should take is a phone call from Worthan, who serves on a committee that oversees funding for the Department of Corrections.

It shouldn’t take special permission to get out from underneath this bill.

The state should pay for mental health expenses directed by the court, an institution run by the state (the Iowa Supreme Court). The case is “State v. Tovar” and not “Buena Vista County v. Tovar.” Everything about this case is managed by the state, except BV County gets the bill.

If the county refuses to pay, the state can dock BV County’s mental health account. Thanks to tight management, the fund has a surplus of more than $1 million. Other area  counties’ mental health accounts are in deficit.

The state has attempted to shift the burden for indigent mental health from local property taxes to the state treasury. Jail inmates should be factored into the equation.

Sac County could barely afford to house murder suspect Kirk Levin, who obviously has mental issues all his own. In fact, it ­couldn’t afford Levin. He was sent to BV County to be held while awaiting trial.

Some counties can bear the expense of the mentally ill. Poorer, rural counties cannot afford to shoulder these cases for long. That’s why various funding formulae, such as school aid, take into account a political unit’s ability to cover extraordinary expenses.

We moved the court system from county support to state support for that very reason — nobody would be denied justice because a county couldn’t afford to run a proper courthouse.

Tovar is insane. As a human being, he deserves a competent level of care that cannot be provided in any jail. He needs to be in a secure psych unit.

And those are expensive. In 2010, Launderville said, Tovar’s daily care at Oakdale was $191 per day. This year the price is $286 per day. The sheriff has no choice but to do what the courts order.

Launderville tells us he will refuse to pay Tovar’s bill out of jail funds. After all, he had a handshake with state officials if not a written agreement. Worthan must remind them of that handshake and let no one wriggle out of a good-faith agreement.

In the next legislative session, we must have an action that will put mental health funding for jail or prison inmates at state expense. The entire idea of county funding for mental health services should have gone out with the old county farm.

“No one should sit in jail for six years without the chance to have his day in court,” Launderville said.

The longer Tovar bounces back and forth between competent mental health care and jail, the longer justice is delayed. And that’s no justice at all.