Judge holds state’s mental health agency in contempt

As of June 2017, only 46.2 percent of people waiting in jails received timely evaluations.

By Martha Bellisle / Associated Press

SEATTLE — A federal judge has found the Washington state agency that oversees mental health services in contempt for failing to provide timely competency evaluations for people waiting in jails.

Judge Marsha Pechman had ordered the agency to conduct in-jail competency evaluations within two weeks of receiving a court order, but the state has failed to meet that timeline. To get the Department of Social and Health Services into compliance, Pechman imposed a fine of $750 per day for each day a person waits beyond the two-week period. It jumps to $1,500 a day if the person is still waiting after another week.

Kim Mosolf, a lawyer with Disability Rights Washington, said they’re glad the court his holding the agency accountable.

“We hope this new contempt order will motivate the state to follow the advice of the court monitor and other experts to reduce the wait lists for competency and restoration services,” Mosolf said. “It has been two and one-half years since Judge Pechman’s original order and class members continue to suffer.”

Pechman had previously found the agency in contempt for failing to treat people in a timely fashion after they were found incompetent to stand trial. Fines for that order have topped $30.6 million.

DSHS assistant secretary Carla Reyes said they’re disappointed with the ruling and said their efforts to reduce wait times were hampered by increased demand.

“We have made significant strides to reduce wait times for class members,” Reyes said. “Some of the key changes include the addition of over 50 percent more forensic evaluators; the creation of several outstation locations to put evaluators closer to the jails; and the implementation of mobile technology. These enhancements have decreased wait times.”

Jaime Smith, spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said the state is treating twice the number of people in a shorter average time.

“The governor has put tremendous, unprecedented focus on improving our state’s mental health system — on both the civil and forensic sides — which relies heavily on the support and capacity of community providers and hospitals, law enforcement and the Legislature,” she said. “We are continuing to look at any and all other options that better enable faster treatment of forensic patients without compromising the care of other patients.”

Agency representatives made similar statements to Pechman during hearings on the contempt motion, but she didn’t accept them, according to her order.

As of June 2017, only 46.2 percent of people waiting in jails received timely evaluations, which increases the stress on the person and strains the jails and the criminal justice system, she said.

In 2015, the average number of in-jail evaluation orders per month was 222, and in 2017, that number was 291, she said. As of August, there were 38 evaluators and “if each evaluator were accomplishing the modest goal of completing 10 evaluations a month, it would be sufficient to meet current demand,” Pechman said.

Instead, there’s been a “dramatic decrease” in the percentage of evaluations done in a timely manner, she said.

The agency also is failing to factor in things like vacations, sick leave and “failed to even find out what a competitive market rate is in the area for evaluations” so reserve evaluators could be called in when demands peak.

“There is no other conclusion but that Defendants have chosen not to prioritize the constitutional rights of class members when making decisions as to how many evaluators are necessary to reach compliance and cease violating the constitutional rights of the class,” Pechman said. “The Court is hopeful that the defendants will stop their procrastination and false promises and heed the advice of every expert to advise them.

Pechman ordered the agency to increase the number of evaluators, expand the types of professionals used to perform evaluations, increase their productivity, and pay outside professionals a competitive rate for help, she said.

Pechman ordered the agency and governor’s office to report back to her Nov. 21.

Talk to us

More in Northwest

FILE - In this March 9, 2021, file photo, House members meet in the Statehouse, in Boise, Idaho. An Idaho law banning nearly all abortions would take effect if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that declared a nationwide right to abortion. The court with a 6-3 conservative majority on Wednesday, Dec. 1 starts hearing arguments over a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks. (AP Photo/Keith Ridler, File)
Most Idaho abortions banned if Roe v. Wade is overturned

That would leave the nearest providers for people from Idaho in Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Colorado.

Northwest residents urged to stay alert as storms roll in

The big question is how communities that saw heavy damage earlier from the previous storm will fare.

Feds: Dams helped prevent more severe Skagit River flooding

The Army Corps of Engineers says flooding in Skagit County would have been catastrophic if not for the Ross and Upper Baker dams holding back the rush of rainwater.

Rear Adm. Christopher Sweeney, commander of Puget Sound-based Carrier Strike Group 11, in Bremerton on Nov. 23, 2021. (U.S. Navy/MC3 Justin McTaggart)
From Everett, this rear admiral commands a Navy strike group

Christopher Sweeney leads Carrier Strike Group 11, a force of aircraft and ships stretching from here to San Diego.

FILE - Floodwater inundates homes along a road on Nov. 17, 2021, in Sumas, Wash. Damages from flooding last week in northwest Washington's Whatcom County could reach as high as $50 million, officials said, as forecasters warn that multiple "atmospheric rivers" may drench the Pacific Northwest in coming days. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
State faces threat of more ‘atmospheric rivers’ and floods

More moisture is expected to bring up to 3 inches of rain in some areas hit by the recent flooding.

A portion of the Redistricting Commission-approved legislative map showing the 12th District, which would span the Cascade Range. (Washington State Redistricting Commission) 20211124
Proposed political map links cities from Monroe to Wenatchee

Highway 2 would unite communities on both sides of the Cascades in one legislative district. Here’s what else could change.

The Washington State House of Representatives convenes for floor session, Feb. 21, 2019.
Granite Falls representative joins lawsuit over House vax rule

Rep. Robert Sutherland objects to the COVID-19 vaccine because he had a severe reaction to a flu shot.

Holding her nine-month-old son Oliver,  Kate Torrey talks with older son Isaac and partner Lindsay, in their kitchen  at their home on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2021 in Snohomish, Washington. Like many families last year, The Torreys skipped out on the usual Thanksgiving get-together. This year will be the first time some family members get to meet her new baby. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Thanks to vaccines, Thanksgiving 2021 is closer to normal

Last year, we were told to stick to immediate households. This year’s holiday is cautiously more open.

Pattie Cole-Tindall (King County Sheriff's Office)
King County executive names new interim sheriff

Patti Cole-Tindall, currently second in command at the department, will start Jan. 1.

Steve Hobbs, who was sworn in as Washington Secretary of State, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., poses in front of photos of the 15 people who previously held his office. Hobbs, a former state senator from Lake Stevens, Wash., is the first person of color to head the office and the first Democrat to serve as Secretary in more than 50 years. He replaces Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who resigned to accept an election security job in the Biden administration. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Steve Hobbs sworn in as Washington’s 16th secretary of state

The state senator from Lake Stevens is the first Democrat to hold the position in 56 years.

COVID hits communities of color harder, state report says

Hispanics comprise 13% of the state’s population. They’ve accounted for 26% of COVID cases and 19% of hospitalizations.

Mount Vernon floodwall does its job — save the city

In its first major test since it was built in 2018, the structure along the Skagit River keeps downtown dry despite near-record flooding.