Lawyers’ work on behalf of jailed mentally ill clients lauded

EVERETT — They weren’t getting any relief for their mentally ill clients who were waiting months in the Snohomish County Jail for a bed at the state psychiatric hospital.

In motion after motion the state Attorney General’s Office would defend the delays, saying there was nothing it could do to change the system. There were too many mentally ill people awaiting competency restoration and not enough beds at Western State Hospital.

People charged with crimes who were unable to assist with their own defense were jailed for weeks and sometimes months, often in solitary confinement, waiting to be moved to the hospital.

The long waits had surfaced years earlier and the state Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees the mental hospital, had taken some action but the issue came to head again last year.

Disability Rights Washington was working diligently behind the scenes to negotiate a solution and gather data about the scope of the problem.

Snohomish County public defenders Cassie Trueblood, Jason Schwarz and Braden Pence weren’t going to wait anymore for a fix. They filed a civil rights lawsuit in August in federal court on behalf of one of their clients.

The lawyers recently were recognized around the state for their efforts to put an end to warehousing incompetent defendants in county jails.

Last month, a federal court ordered the state to fix the long waits. U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman concluded that current system is violating the rights of mentally ill people and she ruled that inmates must be moved within seven days of a judge’s order.

“The state has consistently and over a long period of time violated the constitutional rights of the mentally ill — this must stop,” Pechman wrote.

The state has until July to provide Pechman with its plan to comply with her ruling. It must be implemented by next year. Lawmakers in Olympia are looking for money to fund more mental health beds and psychiatrists.

Trueblood recently was given the Washington Defender Association President’s Award for her work to change statewide practices for competency restoration. Pence, her husband, received a certificate of recognition.

Trueblood, Schwarz and Pence and their office’s social worker, Eric Johnsen, also were given the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys Champion of Justice Award.

The legal teams for Disability Rights Washington and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington also were given the same award for their work on behalf of people living with mental illness. Those lawyers took over the federal lawsuit when Pechman ruled that the public defenders didn’t have legal standing to bring civil action against the state.

The Snohomish County Bar Association also gave its president’s award to Trueblood.

“Cassie has been a true champion not only for her own mentally ill clients, but, truly for all those accused of criminal conduct who suffer from mental illness,” Snohomish County Superior Court Judge George Bowden wrote in a nomination letter.

She has gone above providing competent representation for her clients. “She has been tackling, successfully, a much larger problem — one which has been systemically denying justice to the mentally ill,” Bowden wrote.

Trueblood, 35, has been with the public defenders association for nine years. Longtime managing director Bill Jaquette hired the Indiana native right out of law school.

Last year she had been out of the office on maternity leave for about three months when Schwarz came over to visit her and Pence. The conversation circled back to a common point of frustration: the constant battle to get their clients to the hospital. They had seen them languish in jail and get worse without treatment. They had been unsuccessful in getting any judge to order sanctions against DSHS.

“Braden and Jason came back from the park with the dog and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ ” Trueblood said. “Thank God we had an amazing boss. We came in and said, ‘Hey Bill, we’re going to sue the state in federal court.’ ”

She went back to work and Pence, 32, stayed home with their infant daughter. He was the only one with experience filing a civil lawsuit and wrote the complaint, often times hammering out the legal briefs with his 4-month-old daughter in his arms.

Schwarz and Trueblood continued to file motions to have their clients released from jail until beds became available at Western State Hospital. They also testified in Olympia about pending legislation before Pechman’s ruling. Since then they’ve been providing feedback about new legislation to meet the judge’s mandate.

Trueblood said the problem is far from fixed. There are too many people caught up in the criminal justice system who don’t belong there, Trueblood said. She held up a 6-inch stack of letters from a severely mentally ill and homeless man. He is a perennial client, who lands on Trueblood’s caseload often in the winter and frequently for breaking windows. She suspects that he is looking to get arrested so he’ll have warm place to stay.

“How is this right?” she asked.

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

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