Judges issue contempt orders, fines in competency cases

Judges across the state of Washington have continued to issue contempt orders and fines against an agency and two psychiatric hospitals for failing to provide timely competency services, despite a federal judge’s ruling saying the state is violating the constitutional rights of some of its most vulnerable citizens.

The orders and sanctions — totaling about $700,000 since 2014, according to an Associated Press review of records — keep piling up, even after U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman issued a permanent injunction on April 2 requiring the state to provide mentally ill people with competency evaluations and treatment within seven days of a judge’s order.

Some judges say the failure to provide services isn’t because the hospitals can’t do it but because they won’t, according to documents obtained through a state Public Records Act request.

“Eastern State Hospital’s violation of this court’s order is willful and intentional,” Spokane Municipal Court Judge Tracy Staab said in a June 2 contempt order in the case of James Ramson, who had spent 50 days waiting in jail for a competency evaluation. The violation wasn’t done with malfeasance but “appears to be an example of boiling the frog,” she said, referring to the parable about what can go wrong when you don’t respond to change.

Absent consequences for violating court orders to provide the services, a pattern of violations developed and the average time for conducting evaluations increased, Staab said.

“Unfortunately, imposing monetary sanctions is the only remedial sanction available to this court,” she said. “This ongoing problem will not get fixed until the issue reaches a critical stage.”

Carla Reyes, acting secretary for the Washington Department of Social and Health Services behavioral health division, said there’s no evidence that the hospitals can but won’t provide the services. She said they’ve been implementing a list of changes comply with the injunction and lower the wait times, including hiring more forensic evaluators and securing more pay for those workers. They’re also working on a plan to acquire 60 new beds between the two hospitals and hope to get another 30 beds at an outside facility.

Lawyers representing people who had waited weeks or months in jail for competency services filed a federal lawsuit in 2014, claiming their constitutional rights were being violated. Pechman agreed, saying jails were not suitable places for the mentally ill to be “warehoused.”

She set a January deadline and appointed a monitor to track the state’s efforts to comply with the injunction. But in her first quarterly report, the monitor said attempts to shorten the wait times for services are failing to keep up with a growing demand and urgent measures are needed to deal with the backlog.

The judges ordering the services continue to demand state action through fines and contempt orders. They’ve issued 65 contempt orders since October 2014.

By last fall, the fines had reached almost $200,000, but the latest tally shows about $500,000 worth of fines since that last total was calculated. The sanctions run from $200 to $500 per day until the person receives services. The largest was $31,500 for forcing a Pierce County man to wait in jail 63 days before getting restoration treatment.

Pierce County judges have issued the most orders, while judges in King and Skagit counties have also found the agency in contempt.

“The state, by failure to supply services, is putting a grave burden on the local community to warehouse those individuals in need of services in the county jail,” said Skagit County Superior Court Judge John Meyer in a December contempt and sanction order. After Western State Hospital received the transport order “no efforts whatsoever were taken” to comply, he said. The state had the ability to comply “but chose not to do so because of its procedure,” he said.

Staab said the hospitals can restructure their procedures by re-allocating beds to defendants needing competency services. Eastern State Hospital has 160 beds for civil commitments but only 25 for competency defendants, she said, adding the hospital has not suggested that shifting the beds “would have catastrophic results.”

King County Superior Court Judge Patrick Oishi made a similar complaint in October.

The state’s lawyers and hospital representatives testified they couldn’t comply with orders to transport mentally ill people for treatment because of things like “admissions protocols.” But based on testimony in this and numerous other cases, Oishi said that claim is “not well-founded.”

“Rather, it is clear that WSH has taken the position that it will not comply with such orders,” Oishi said.

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