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Criminal Justice

How Spotlight PA and PINJ reported ‘A Criminal Solution’

by Danielle Ohl of Spotlight PA and Brittany Hailer of The Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism |

Rachel Bridgeman waited months in jail for a state hospital bed before advocates and family secured her release
Nate Smallwood / For Spotlight PA and PINJ

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.

HARRISBURG — A new investigation by Spotlight PA and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism reveals the very system intended to protect those with mental illness in the criminal justice system often makes matters worse, trapping them in jail.

In an effort to understand Pennsylvania’s competency system, Spotlight PA and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (PINJ) spent six months reviewing hundreds of pages of documents, conducting dozens of interviews and analyzing data from nearly 700 court cases. The newsrooms sent a survey about the system, as well as mental health resources, to every local jail in the commonwealth, and received 22 responses, which informed this reporting.

Reporters interviewed both Rachel and Sarah Bridgeman, who spoke openly about their experience with the competency system in Pennsylvania. The newsrooms reviewed Rachel’s medical records from the Allegheny County Jail, affidavits from her arrests, and court records from her cases to corroborate the Bridgemans’ story. Reporters also spoke with an attorney and an advocate from the Abolitionist Law Center.

Spotlight PA and PINJ reporters sent detailed written questions about Rachel’s case to the Pittsburgh Police, the Allegheny County Jail, and county prosecutors, public defenders and courts. Additionally, reporters sent extensive questions to the Department of Human Services, which oversees Torrance and Norristown State Hospitals.

Spotlight PA requested and paid $860 for records from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC), the government body that oversees local courts and maintains thousands of case records from across the state. Spotlight PA, PINJ, and AOPC officials discussed the request for months to identify case dockets that included evidence that a defendant had been evaluated for competency between 2018 and 2022. Ultimately, using 23 different docket entries and two different dispositions, AOPC found 697 cases across 23 counties and provided information on the cases in a database.

But because AOPC searched using specific terms in specific fields and each local court dockets incompetency proceedings differently, it was impossible to find every case. In the months since obtaining the data, Spotlight PA and PINJ have come across cases that occurred in the time frame used in the request but were not included in the database AOPC provided.

In addition to the competency cases, reporters also asked the Department of Human Services for data on wait times to get into Torrance and Norristown state hospitals. The department responded explaining DHS staff tracks wait times manually using patient referral and admission dates. The department provided some of these manual reports, but as of publication, Spotlight PA and PINJ have not received any information on patient referrals or admissions after 2018 from DHS.

The ACLU provided to the newsrooms the data it receives from DHS.

The newsrooms received referral and admission data provided by DHS to the ACLU from December 2021 to February 2023.

WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

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