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.