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Federal judge fines state $185,500 in mental health case

By Martha Bellisle Associated Press

SEATTLE – A federal judge on Wednesday ordered Washington state’s mental health services agency to pay a $185,500 fine for failing to provide timely competency services to hundreds of mentally ill defendants.

The fine follows a contempt order that U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman issued on July 7 against the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services. Pechman said the state has not complied with her 2015 permanent injunction that required the state to conduct competency evaluations within seven days of a judge’s order. She also set a one-week deadline for providing treatment to restore a defendant’s competency.

Since the state has not complied, Pechman ordered sanctions of $500 for each person waiting more than a week but less than two for competency services and $1,000 per day for each person on a waitlist for more than 14 days.

Between July 8 and 14, the fines accrued to $185,500, the order said.

Kathy Spears, a spokeswoman for the department, said Wednesday they were “discussing our options” for responding to the fines and contempt order.

Just after Pechman issued the order in early July, Carla Reyes, assistant secretary for the Behavioral Health Administration, said they were disappointed with the judge’s conclusions that the state had not made progress since the injunction.

“In fact, we’ve had significant success in reducing the time it takes to provide competency services for class members,” Reyes said in a statement.

Since April 2015, the wait times for inpatient evaluations dropped from 91.8 to 12.5 days at Eastern State Hospital and from 25.5 to 18.9 days at Western State Hospital, Reyes said. Wait times for inpatient restoration services went from 90.8 days to 29 days at Eastern, and from 39 days to 29 days at Western, she said.

“We were able to achieve these outcomes by collaborating with our partners, the judicial and criminal justice systems and by taking multiple aggressive and creative steps,” Reyes said.

But the state’s own report filed with the court on July 15 reveals that hundreds of mentally ill people are still waiting for competency services.

Pechman’s contempt order required the state to provide weekly tallies of the wait times at both hospitals so the fines could be calculated.

Thomas Kinlen, the director of the office of Forensic Mental Health Services, filed a breakdown of cases. It showed that 219 mentally ill people were waiting for competency services as of July 14. Eleven were at Eastern and 208 at Western, his report said.

Sixty-seven defendants had waited between one and two weeks for services. Calculating those cases at $500 per day, the fine came to $33,500, the report said.

The total number of defendants waiting for more than 14 days was 152, the report said. The fine for those defendants was $1,000 per day, for a total of $152,000.

Separately, state judges who originally ordered the defendants to receive competency evaluations or treatment have held the state in contempt and issued fines that reached about $1.5 million by early July. According to Pechman, the state has only paid $132,000 of those fines.

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