Judge: State is violating rights of mentally ill inmates

SEATTLE — A federal judge says long delays for jail inmates who need mental health treatment is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman in Seattle issued a ruling Monday in a class-action lawsuit challenging the long wait times for treatment at Western State Hospital for inmates who aren’t able to assist in their own criminal defense.

The lawsuit originated with the Snohomish County Public Defender Association, whose lawyers have been battling the issue for more than a year. Disability Rights Washington, a Seattle nonprofit, later took up the case.

Pechman on Monday said the state “has consistently and over a long period of time violated the constitutional rights of the mentally ill.” She added: “This must stop.”

Defendants typically have to wait for at least two weeks, and up to nearly two months, before receiving services. Critics say the conditions of the defendants often get worse during those waits.

The state has conceded that the length of the wait times is indefensible.

The case is expected to move to trial in March to determine a proper remedy, and sort out how long is too long for inmates to wait for treatment.

“What the court made clear today is that what the state is doing is illegal. Judge Pechman wants to hear what the solution is,” said David Carlson with Disability Rights Washington.

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Bruce Weiss reached a similar conclusion earlier this year in the case of a mentally ill woman accused of throwing a child out a window. She was too sick to assist her lawyer.

She had been held in the Snohomish County Jail for two months, waiting for a bed at Western State Hospital.

The judge eventually freed the woman while she waited to be treated. Other judges around the state have been leveraging fines against the state.

Weiss was reluctant to impose sanctions, saying that he didn’t find that the hospital was acting in bad faith.

He concluded that the issue needed to be decided by the higher courts, instead of the current piecemeal approach.

“This is great news for our clients,” Snohomish County public defender Jason Schwarz said. “I think it’s a good sign that fixing the problem is next.”

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dianahefley

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