Judge: State must fix problem with jailing mentally ill

SEATTLE — Saying the state of Washington is violating the constitutional rights of some of its most vulnerable citizens, a federal judge on Thursday issued a permanent injunction requiring the state to provide mentally ill people with competency evaluations and treatment within seven days of a state judge’s order.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman said she’ll appoint a monitor to make sure the state fixes the problem since the state has disregarded court orders and forced people to wait for weeks or months in jail cells for competency services.

She gave the state nine months to resolve the competency crisis by hiring needed staff and providing hospital bed space.

“Our jails are not suitable places for the mentally ill to be warehoused while they wait for services,” Pechman said in a written order. “Jails are not hospitals, they are not designed as therapeutic environments, and they are not equipped to manage mental illness or keep those with mental illness from being victimized by the general population of inmates.”

Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Washington, who had filed a class-action lawsuit against the state and argued for tough action during a two-week trial that ended last week, praised the judge’s ruling.

“The court has made it crystal clear that the state cannot deny basic human rights to mentally ill people in jail,” said La Rond Baker, an ACLU of Washington staff attorney.

“Constitutional rights are not subject to available funds,” added Emily Cooper of Disability Rights Washington. “The state’s excuses that they have lacked funding or resources to provide competency services to vulnerable individuals waiting in jail will no longer be tolerated.”

Assistant Attorney General John McIlhenny, who defended the state against the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling. He had argued at trial that the state had tried to address the issue and had implemented some changes that would help.

Judge Pechman, however, blamed the state for failing to provide sufficient funding for beds at psychiatric hospitals and staff for those facilities.

“The Department of Social and Health Services has been hampered in providing these required services by insufficient funding for beds and personnel,” she said. “Without these resources, they cannot collaborate and coordinate with the other agencies and courts involved in the criminal mental health system.”

The judge also faulted the agency for failing to change its procedures to respond to this ongoing crisis and said it “has routinely defied the orders of Washington’s state courts, a practice that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in contempt fines.”

Agency officials also did not make any progress in implementing reforms that had been recommended by auditors and experts, she said. Nor did they plan ahead for the growth in demand for competency services, which has increased every year for the last decade, she said.

The lawyers have two weeks to propose a monitor to oversee the changes, and then the judge said she will appoint that person within 30 days. The state will have to file a report with the monitor every month that includes the number of days between court orders for competency and services.

Anita Khandelwal, with the Public Defender Association, said the ruling will provide relief for defense lawyers who will now know they can request competency services and their clients won’t be waiting weeks or months for services.

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