Trial over, judge to rule on state’s competency case this week

SEATTLE — A federal judge will decide by the end of the week whether to force the Washington to end its practice of holding mentally ill people in jail for weeks or months while they wait for competency evaluations and treatment.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman has already ruled that the practice violates the constitutional rights of those defendants. During a two-week trial that ended Thursday she heard testimony and reviewed evidence to decide whether the court should step in to fix the problem, or whether the state has it under control.

Lawyers from Disability Rights Washington and the American Civil Liberties Union urged the judge to declare that no mentally ill defendants who were ordered to have competency evaluations or treatment will be held in jail for more than seven days. They also asked her to issue an injunction to force the state to abide by a law that sets a seven-day limit and asked Pechman to appoint a monitor to track the state’s efforts to provide more beds at its psychiatric hospitals and hire more staff to care for the defendants.

Assistant Attorney General John McIlhenny told the judge during his closing argument that the court doesn’t need to get involved in the competency plan. He said the state has already made changes to ensure evaluations and treatment occur in a more-timely manner. Lawmakers have added more funding to mental health and the Legislature passed a measure, Senate Bill 5889, that moves the seven-day wait-time limit in the law to a 14-day firm deadline.

But Pechman responded with skepticism.

“There’s a pattern there that the state would rather litigate over it then use those funds to fix the problem,” she said. “And if you look at the new law, are they simply saying ‘we’re not willing to put the money in to fix the problem, we’re going to move the goal post to make it easier to meet?”’

McIlhenny said they didn’t move the goal post but instead made the 14 days a firm deadline, while the current seven-day deadline is a target. The plan also includes adding 45 new beds to Western State Hospital, 15 beds to Eastern State Hospital and money for 10.5 more evaluators.

The first person to testify at the trial that began on March 16 was a mother of a mentally ill man who spent 97 days in a jail cell before he was sent to Western State to receive treatment to restore his competency. Marilyn Roberts said during his stay, he became delusional, couldn’t concentrate, stopped eating and started hearing things.

Once hospitalized, his mental and physical health improved quickly, she said. Lawyers for the defendants in the class-action lawsuit said his story was typical of hundreds of mentally ill defendants who have not received proper care because the state has failed to adequately fund and staff its mental health system.

Toward the end of 2013, the wait times ranged from 20 to 144 days, the lawyers said. In 2014, waits lasted 18 to 85 days on average, they said.

The lawyers urged the judge to appoint a qualified expert to serve as a monitor within 14 days of her order.

McIlhenny told the judge that would not be necessary.

McIlhenny urged the judge to order the state Department of Social and Health Services to abide by the new law that sets the 14-day limits.

“All you need to say is that (SB) 5889, which is the law of the state of Washington, does not violate the outer boundaries of due process in this case,” McIlhenny said in his closing argument.

Pechman said she would issue her ruling by Friday.

Talk to us

More in Local News

An example of the Malicious Women Co. products (left) vs. the Malicious Mermaid's products (right). (U.S. District Court in Florida)
Judge: Cheeky candle copycat must pay Snohomish company over $800K

The owner of the Malicious Women Co. doesn’t expect to receive any money from the Malicious Mermaid, a Florida-based copycat.

A grave marker for Blaze the horse. (Photo provided)
After Darrington woman’s horse died, she didn’t know what to do

Sidney Montooth boarded her horse Blaze. When he died, she was “a wreck” — and at a loss as to what to do with his remains.

A fatal accident the afternoon of Dec. 18 near Clinton ended with one of the cars involved bursting into flames. The driver of the fully engulfed car was outside of the vehicle by the time first responders arrived at the scene. (Whidbey News-Times/Submitted photo)
Driver sentenced in 2021 crash that killed Everett couple

Danielle Cruz, formerly of Lynnwood, gets 17½ years in prison. She was impaired by drugs when she caused the crash that killed Sharon Gamble and Kenneth Weikle.

A person walks out of the Everett Clinic on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
The Everett Clinic changing name to parent company Optum in 2024

The parent company says the name change will not affect quality of care for patients in Snohomish County.

Tirhas Tesfatsion (GoFundMe) 20210727
Lynnwood settles for $1.7 million after 2021 suicide at city jail

Jail staff reportedly committed 16 safety check violations before they found Tirhas Tesfatsion, 47, unresponsive in her cell.

A semi-truck rolled over blocking all traffic lanes Thursday morning on I-5 north just south of Arlington on Sept. 21, 2023. (Washington State Patrol)
Overturned trailer spills fish onto I-5 near Arlington, closing lanes

The crash blocked all lanes, forcing drivers going north during rush hour to use the left shoulder.

The Marysville Municipal Jail is pictured Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, in Marysville, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Marysville weighs mandatory jail time for repeated ‘public disorder’

The “three strikes” proposal sets a minimum sentence of 30 days in jail for crimes like public drug use and trespassing.

Everett police on patrol heard gunshots near 26th Street and Lombard Avenue and closed off multiple roads as they investigated on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (Everett Police Department)
3 teens arrested after gunfire in downtown Everett

No one was injured. Police heard gunfire in the area of 26th Street and Lombard Avenue.

It’s time to celebrate and say thanks

Local journalism — and community support — will be the stars of Behind the News Stories on Oct. 24 in Edmonds.

Most Read