LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas criminal defendants who may be mentally ill often sit in jail for months before receiving a mental evaluation, possibly in violation of the state and federal constitutions, a judge told state legislators Tuesday.

Benton County Circuit Judge Jon Comstock testified at a joint meeting of the House and Senate committees on public health, welfare and labor that when he signs an order committing a defendant in a felony case to the State Hospital for an evaluation, the defendant sometimes has to wait for as long as eight months for a bed to become available at the facility.

"During that entire period of time, (the defendant) routinely is not seen by a single mental health professional," Comstock said.

In addition to raising humanitarian concerns, the situation may violate defendants’ constitutional rights, exposing the state to lawsuits, he warned.

Comstock said there are 93 beds in the forensic unit at the State Hospital, some of them occupied by people who have been at the hospital for more than 20 years. He said there are things that can be done to address the issue that would not cost the state more money, including streamlining the evaluation process.

That is the goal of a bill that officials with the State Hospital, law enforcement officials and the American Civil Liberties Union are working on to propose in the legislative session that begins next month, Comstock said.

Currently, a defendant whose mental fitness is in question receives two evaluations, one to determine fitness to proceed in court and the other to determine culpability, i.e., whether the defendant is able to understand right from wrong.

Comstock said the legislation being drafted would allow a judge to compel the hospital to perform only an evaluation of fitness and not an evaluation of culpability, which is a more exhaustive evaluation.

"The reason that will help break up some of the backlog is because if you determine a person finally is fit to proceed, that case will move along in a normal criminal justice process," he said. "Ninety-five percent of cases are disposed of by an agreed plea agreement, and those cases will still happen that way. The small percentage that do end up going to trial, where they can’t come to a plea agreement, that’s where they will ask for the deeper, more exhaustive assessment."

Amy Webb, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, said in an interview that a fitness evaluation can be done in as little as one hour, whereas an evaluation to determine a defendant’s knowledge of right and wrong is much more extensive and requires looking through years of medical records.

She said the bill also would expand the number of places where defendants can be sent for outpatient forensic services. Since April, those services have been available at six facilities in the state.

To date about 74 people have been referred to those services, Webb said.

"We know that is taking less time because they don’t have to wait for an available bed at the hospital to receive their evaluation," she said.