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Friday, July 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Washington

Settlement approved in Washington state case over delays in mental-competency evaluations

An inmate huddles under a heavy blanket on a bunk in the psychiatric unit of the Pierce County Jail on Oct. 15, 2014, in Tacoma, Wash. A federal judge who said Washington state was violating the constitutional rights of mentally ill people warehoused in jails as they await competency services has approved a settlement in a case they filed against the state. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
An inmate huddles under a heavy blanket on a bunk in the psychiatric unit of the Pierce County Jail on Oct. 15, 2014, in Tacoma, Wash. A federal judge who said Washington state was violating the constitutional rights of mentally ill people warehoused in jails as they await competency services has approved a settlement in a case they filed against the state. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
By Martha Bellisle Associated Press

SEATTLE – After twice finding the state of Washington in contempt for violating an order to provide timely competency services to mentally ill people held in jails, a federal judge has approved a settlement that is designed to ensure people get help before entering the criminal justice system.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman approved the agreement between Disability Rights Washington and the Department of Social and Health Services on Tuesday. The agency announced the settlement on Wednesday.

Pechman’s order said the agreement is “fair, reasonable and adequate” and will put on hold the contempt fines the state has been paying for years.

To date, the state has been fined more than $83.4 million for forcing people to wait for services.

DSHS Secretary Cheryl Strange says the agreement will improve access to mental health treatment for people waiting in jails for competency evaluations and treatment.

“We are working diligently alongside Governor (Jay) Inslee to bring his plan for behavioral health transformation to fruition, including transforming Western and Eastern state hospitals into forensic centers of excellence and creating state run community-based facilities to help people get the treatment they need and continue living in their home communities,” Strange said in a statement.

Gov. Jay Inslee said he was proud of the people who worked together to address the problem.

“Judge Pechman called it ‘an extraordinary effort’ and I couldn’t agree more,” he said in a statement. “This will be crucial in our efforts to transform the behavioral health system.”

David Carlson with the rights group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The rights group sued the state in federal court in 2014 on behalf of mentally ill people who spent weeks or months languishing in jail cells awaiting competency evaluations after being arrested for a crime. If found incompetent to stand trial, the accused would spend more time waiting for treatment to restore their competency.

Following a trial in 2015, Pechman said the state was violating the rights of its most vulnerable citizens.

“Our jails are not suitable places for the mentally ill to be warehoused while they wait for services,” Pechman said in her order. “Jails are not hospitals, they are not designed as therapeutic environments, and they are not equipped to manage mental illness or keep those with mental illness from being victimized by the general population of inmates.”

She ordered the state to provide in-jail competency evaluations within 14 days of a court order and restoration services within seven days.

When the state failed to comply, she ordered it in contempt in 2016 and again in 2017. The most recent order was in October 2017, when Pechman imposed a fine of $750 a day for each day a person waits beyond the two-week period. The fine jumps to $1,500 a day if the person is still waiting after an additional week.

The agency said the settlement “not only improves wait times for class members to receive competency evaluations and restoration services, it also increases services and programs for crisis triage, diversion supports, education and training as well as workforce development.”

The agreement focuses on five main areas that need improvement.

The state must increase the number of competency evaluators and improve its data system. It must also reduce the number of people ordered to receive restoration services by using outpatient programs and adding capacity to existing restoration services.

The state will expand programs that help police and mental health providers work together, and it will expand behavioral health crisis training for emergency dispatchers, jail officers and police.

The changes will roll out in phases in different parts of the state. Phase one will hit Pierce County, southwest Washington and Spokane. Phase two will include King County. The third phase will be determined based on how the first two operate.

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