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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Bill would curb patient trips

Paul’s escape from Spokane County fair takes center stage in lawmakers’ debate

Dangerous mental health patients would be barred from leaving state hospitals for most excursions without specific court orders under a bill the Legislature is considering.

The bill, prompted by the escape last fall of an Eastern State Hospital patient, Phillip Paul, during a field trip to the Spokane County fair, got strong support Monday from legislators and a representative of the mental health community during a hearing in the House Human Services Committee.

“This was a very traumatic event for Spokane County,” said state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Greenacres, sponsor of HB 2717.

Paul, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1987 slaying of an elderly Sunnyside, Wash., woman, was among 31 Eastern State patients on a supervised field trip to the fair Sept. 17 when he walked away from the group unnoticed and left the fairgrounds. Supervisors didn’t report the escape for two hours; Paul was caught three days later near Goldendale after a massive manhunt.

“This should have never happened, and we can never let it happen again,” said state Rep. Norm Johnson, R-Yakima.

Under the bill, a patient found not guilty by reason of insanity could get a temporary supervised release for needed medical treatment, to visit a seriously ill relative or attend a relative’s funeral. An amendment approved by the committee would allow a temporary supervised release for other reasons. Local law enforcement agencies would have to be notified of any release.

David Lord of Disability Rights Washington said the amendment for a court approval of other supervised trips was an improvement on the original bill, which he said was too restrictive.

Paul’s escape was also mentioned in a separate hearing on a proposal to allow juries to find a criminal defendant guilty and mentally ill. That verdict would be added to the current options of guilty, not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity.

That proposal, HB 2887, backed by Gov. Chris Gregoire, is supported by law enforcement and the state Department of Corrections, which houses about 4,000 mentally ill inmates, Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said.

Eleanor Owen of the National Alliance on Mental Illness criticized the proposal as an attempt to criminalize mental illness. Paul “simply outwitted negligent or incompetent staff,” she said. A better solution is early treatment to head off violent acts by the mentally ill, she added.

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