Judge vows action on jail wait times

SEATTLE — A federal lawsuit that demands statewide changes for people who languish in jail while awaiting mental health treatment took a step forward Wednesday.

The action was brought in part on behalf of a Snohomish County woman.

U.S. District Chief Judge Marsha Pechman said she didn’t have enough information to grant a temporary restraining order that would have forced the state to cut wait times at Western State Hospital. She acknowledged, however, serious constitutional concerns in situations where inmates wait months to receive court-ordered competency evaluations and treatment.

Pechman said she would be ready to take the issue to trial quickly.

“I’m prepared to give a trial date on the day you want,” she said. “I believe these are very, very significant issues that need to be ruled on rapidly.”

The Snohomish County Public Defenders Association filed a federal lawsuit in August on behalf of a client with a history of mental illness. She was accused of causing a disturbance at an Everett pub and slapping a police officer. The woman, who is charged with third-degree assault, had been held in solitary confinement at the jail for a month while awaiting a bed at Western.

The public defender association was told it didn’t have legal standing to sue the state Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees Western.

Disability Rights Washington, a nonprofit, took up the cause with backing by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, the state Public Defender Association and the law offices of Carney Gillespie Isitt.

Disability Rights lawyer David Carlson told Pechman that the state has had years to fix the wait lists, The Associated Press reported. The state has chosen not to fund the beds despite being aware of the problems, he said.

Recently there were about 100 jailed people waiting to be evaluated or to receive treatment. The average wait time is nearly two months.

Criminal defendants must be able to assist with their own defense. If not, the state must provide restoration services.

The hospital and DSHS have claimed that they are prohibited by the state constitution and state law from spending more money than appropriated by the legislature. DSHS secretary Kevin Quigley is expected to ask lawmakers next year to fund an additional 30 beds.

The state also is looking into options outside the hospital for services, such as competency restoration.

Criminal defense attorneys, now joined by civil attorneys, insist that a lack of beds isn’t a legal basis to delay admission for sick people. They say the statute allows the state to use other facilities when necessary.

They allege that people languish in jail without proper treatment. Their conditions often deteriorate the longer they wait.

Snohomish County judges also have been struggling with the issue as defense attorneys ask for penalties against the hospital, request that criminal cases be dismissed or ask that mentally ill people be released into the community until a treatment bed opens up.

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Bruce Weiss this month was asked to throw out an assault charge against a woman who has been waiting since Aug. 8 to be admitted to the hospital for competency restoration. The woman attended at least one court hearing strapped to a restraint chair.

Weiss said he didn’t think that Western was acting in bad faith but he did conclude that the woman’s constitutional rights were being violated. He said he believed that the issue needed to be taken up with the state Court of Appeals for a uniform approach instead of piecemeal rulings in the state’s county courts.

In Wednesday’s hearing, a state lawyer asked for more time to find remedies.

Pechman gave them until Oct. 27 to decide how to proceed.

In August, the state Supreme Court ruled that it is illegal to warehouse mentally ill patients in emergency rooms while awaiting civil commitment to the state’s psychiatric hospitals.

The court later granted a reprieve, giving the state until late December to find more beds and comply with the law.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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

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