Jail video link speeds evaluation of mentally ill inmates

The goal is to reduce wait times to determine if people can assist in their defense.

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office has taken another step to better serve justice and those people whose mental illness might have contributed to them landing behind jail bars.

Officials at the jail in Everett and with the state’s Office of Forensic Mental Health Services said Monday that they have launched a project to make it quicker to provide pre-trial competency evaluations of some detainees. The undertaking involved creating a new system for secure videoconferencing at the jail and with mental health professionals.

The goal is to reduce wait times for evaluations to determine whether people are well enough to assist in their defense, especially for people who live with significant mental illness and who are locked up for misdemeanors, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office said in a press release.

The state Department of Social and Health Services has come under fire for long waits on evaluations. The agency has been criticized for making limited progress in providing swift evaluations. It recently was found in contempt of court for meeting timelines for improvements.

“The program will be a great benefit for our inmates who suffer from mental illness by creating a more efficient process for completing competency evaluations,” Sheriff Ty Trenary said. “We hope that the evaluation process will be much quicker and so inmates can get into treatment and connected with the resources they need.”

The jail in Everett, which is operated by the sheriff’s office, is one of four around Washington where the videoconferencing of evaluations is being tested. The sheriff’s office and the state in 2015 teamed up to offer conferences within the jail, also reducing wait times.

“The Snohomish County jail is the flagship site for the new program.” said Dr. David D. Luxton of the state’s competency evaluation program.

State experts conduct 10 to 15 competency evaluations each week at the jail.

Attorneys, particularly those with the Snohomish County Public Defender Association, brought statewide attention to the long delays many people living with mental illness have faced while awaiting competency evaluations. People often have languished in jail while officials attempt to determine whether they can help assist at their trial.

Trenary has made a priority out of changing how the community uses the jail. He’s backed efforts to connect mentally ill inmates to resources before they leave. He’s also been a statewide advocate in exploring ways to intervene before people arrive at jail.

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