Acting Maryland health secretary Dennis R. Schrader. (Maryland state government) (Joe Andrucyk/Maryland state government)

Acting Maryland Health Secretary Dennis Schrader and four other top state officials were held in contempt of court Thursday by a Baltimore judge for failing to increase the number of psychiatric hospital beds available for mentally ill criminal defendants.

Retired Circuit Court Judge Gale E. Rasin, who had been weighing a contempt order since last year, said the officials had willfully disregarded past court orders to provide proper treatment for mentally ill inmates.

She gave Schrader until Dec. 31 to fully staff and admit patients to a 20-bed unit at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup, Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville and a third facility, to be selected in consultation with the state director of hospitals, that would also accommodate 20 inmates in need of psychiatric treatment.

“The actions and omissions of the Department and the respondent officers and agents have been knowing, intentional and voluntary,” Rasin wrote in a 58-page opinion.

She slammed the agency for failing to act despite “years of notice about the problem, internal recommendations to increase bed size, admonitions by the judiciary, oversight of the legislature, civil charges of contempt of court, and commitments by its own Secretary.”

Schrader said in an interview that the department has been working hard to try to reduce the wait list. “It was a little disappointing,” he said. “This has been one of my top priorities. We can’t do these things overnight.”

The Maryland Public Defender's Office sued the state last year in an attempt to compel the officials to transfer mentally ill defendants into hospital beds, rather than leaving them in jail cells.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, 84 jail inmates were waiting for beds after being ordered by a court to get psychiatric treatment in a hospital. A spokesman for the department said Thursday that the current number of inmates awaiting a bed is 21.

Assistant Public Defender Sharon Bogins Eberhart called Rasin’s order a victory for her clients, and any other inmate with a mental illness.

“They tell us they’re going to do something and it’s not getting done and my clients are suffering,” she said. “It’s promising that someone has finally held the department’s feet to the fire.”

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) promised in 2016 to work “very closely” with then-Health Secretary Van T. Mitchell to reduce the list of mentally ill inmates awaiting hospital treatment.

Mitchell called the situation a “crisis” and said he planned to “fix it.” He left the department in December, however, and was replaced by Schrader.

Rasin said the department failed to follow recommendations made by a 2016 work group that included state health officials. She said the delay “seems to be all about the money.”

Eberhart emphasized that many people needing a bed have not yet been found guilty of a crime. Even so, they get stuck in jail waiting. The hospitals need more staff and resources, she argued, so more inmates can be admitted.

Last year, Mitchell said he made a “mistake” not asking the state legislature for more money to provide beds.

“The test of a society is how you treat the less fortunate and the disabled, and we’re locking them up in a jail instead of putting them in a hospital where they belong,” Eberhart said. “It’s not fair to the staff at the jail and it’s not fair to my clients.”