Reporter - Danielle Lerner

Feb 20, 2012 2:29 PM by Danielle Lerner

Fit for Justice: Inside Pima County's Restoration to Competency program

Jared Loughner is perhaps the most notorious murder suspect in Tucson, currently undergoing treatment to see if he will be mentally fit to stand trial. That treatment is happening thousands of miles away in Missouri but there is a program right here in Tucson, at the Pima County Jail, to help other defendants become mentally ready for trial. It is the RTC Program, which stands for Restoration to Competency, and since it started a few years ago it has kept a low profile.

The Pima County program has handled more than 350 defendants, saving taxpayers a lot of money and time since it's all done here in Tucson, instead of the state hospital in Phoenix.

"To travel 100 miles to get your business done is difficult," said Pima County Behavioral Health Administrator Pat Benchik.

"Sometimes a judge would order someone into restoration and the defendant would wait three months before they could even be transported up to Phoenix and begin the process," said Terri Rahner, a clinical coordinator at Pima County Superior Court.

Last year Pima County's program cost just more than $1.3 million. Going through the Arizona State Hospital would have cost more than $4 million and that is a conservative estimate. Also the average time spent in the county's program is about 75 days. In Phoenix, more like 120 days.

"It's a win-win for us," said Rahner.

At any given time there are up to 30 defendants in the RTC program and the length of their stay varies. Their charges range from misdemeanors to violent felonies. Two of the most recent additions include Pam Phillips, charged with conspiracy and first degree murder in the death of Gary Triano. He was killed in a car bombing at La Paloma Country Club in 1996. Also 22-year-old Tina Beerens, she is accused of trying to poison her boyfriend and his mother.

"An individual has an opportunity to present their innocence in a court and so they've got to be able to participate in that process, and participate in their own defense, and that's what this program is all about," said Benchik.

The in-custody program happens on the first floor of the Pima County Jail.

"It sorts out people who are truly unable to defend themselves and are unable to assist their attorney," said Rahner.

A team of eight works to investigate, evaluate and educate each individual. At times they use models and brightly-colored flash cards to tackle everything from key players in the courtroom, to a person's rights.

"The reports generated out of this program are extraordinarily comprehensive in comparison to what judges used to get," Rahner said.

A judge gets those reports every couple of months and uses them when making the final decision. A person is either competent to stand trial, incompetent but restorable, or incompetent and not restorable. That third option often means the charges will be dismissed.

"That's a big thing, to determine whether someone is going to be held accountable for crimes they've allegedly committed," said Rahner.

Pima County now also provides RTC services for nearby counties like Cochise, Mohave, Greenlee and Santa Cruz. Still, some defense attorneys think restoration should be done in a hospital setting, not a jail. The RTC team says sending individuals to the state hospital in Phoenix is still an option, but only if it is absolutely necessary.

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