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News >  Pacific NW

Long jail waits for mentally ill ‘must stop,’ federal judge rules

Gene Johnson Associated Press

SEATTLE – Washington state’s lengthy warehousing of mentally ill defendants in jails before trial is “far beyond any constitutional limits” and “must stop,” a federal judge said Monday.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman in Seattle issued her ruling Monday in a class-action lawsuit challenging the practice.

“The state has consistently and over a long period of time violated the constitutional rights of the mentally ill – this must stop,” the judge wrote.

At issue is the state’s practice of holding mentally ill defendants in city and county jails pending mental health treatment or a determination on whether they’re competent to stand trial. Because of a lack of space at the state’s two psychiatric hospitals, defendants typically have to wait for at least two weeks, and up to nearly two months, before receiving services, Pechman noted, and during that time their conditions often worsen.

Facing the stress of incarceration, some hurt themselves, refuse to eat or must be forcibly restrained – risking injury, she said.

The judge said that jailing the defendants for up to seven days, the timeline set out in state law, could be considered reasonable, but anything beyond that was suspect. A trial set for March will help determine exactly how long is too long, she said.

The lawsuit, brought against the state Department of Social and Health Services, is one of several developments that have recently focused attention on the problem. State judges have started fining Washington tens of thousands of dollars for failing to follow treatment orders, while the state Supreme Court ruled in August that even keeping mentally ill defendants in hospital emergency rooms without treatment – let alone jails – violates their constitutional rights.

“There are hundreds of individuals waiting in jail for the state to provide these services, who are suffering needlessly in jail,” said Margaret Chen, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. “The only justification the state has offered is lack of money and resources. That’s no justification for depriving people of their liberty.”

The state’s lawyers conceded that waits experienced by many defendants are “excessive and indefensible.” But they said the situation isn’t as bad as critics made out, and they asked the judge to limit the scope of her ruling and to decline to adopt a rule for how long is too long.

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