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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Federal judge scolds state for treatment of mentally ill

This Nov. 18, 2015, file photo shows a sign near the main entrance of Western State Hospital, the largest psychiatric hospital in the state, in Lakewood, Wash. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
By Martha Bellisle Associated Press

SEATTLE – A federal judge has blasted the Washington state agency responsible for providing competency services to mentally ill people in jail, saying the agency doesn’t appear to understand that these individuals “have constitutional rights that are being violated.”

The number of people waiting for competency evaluations or treatment in custody has increased since April 2016 instead of going down, as the court ordered back in April 2015, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman said Thursday in a written order.

“They have been charged with criminal offenses but they have not been convicted, thus they enjoy the presumption of innocence which is a bedrock principle of our jurisprudence,” Pechman said. “They have not been found by a court to be a danger to themselves or others, unlike those under civil commitment orders.”

Yet they wait for weeks or months for competency services while the state continues to pay fines for being found in contempt of her court order to fix the problem. The state has paid $9.6 million in contempt fines so far.

“This must stop,” she said. “The defendants cannot let the sanctions pile up while pleading lack of funding.”

Pechman also scolded Carla Reyes, the Department of Social and Health Services assistant secretary, for telling the judge the state only planned to use the Yakima jail and another facility for a year, while at the same time advising the governor’s office that they planned to extend the contracts at those facilities into 2018.

“This was done without notice to the court, the court monitor or the plaintiffs,” Pechman said. “This lack of candor violates the trust the court extended to the defendants to be in control of their own plans for compliance.”

In a statement DSHS said it has made progress providing competency evaluations and is trying to comply with the court order “as quickly as possible.”

“We join Judge Pechman, Governor Jay Inslee, members of the Legislature, law enforcement and, most importantly, the patients and their families, in our quest to provide quality mental health services in a timely manner,” said Pat Lashway, acting DSHS secretary. “We are all in this together.”

The agency said it was working to have Western State Hospital, the state’s largest psychiatric hospital with about 800 beds, retain federal certification following concerns about patient safety. As of right now the agency says there’s not enough staff at Western to add more beds.

Pechman issued a list of orders that the agency must implement immediately. The changes include hiring additional staff to handle evaluations and provide treatment, and make sure the staff has flexible hours to provide services on nights and weekends.

“Those who are mentally ill deteriorate while jailed,” Pechman said, (while) “officers, other detainees, guards, and class members are put in danger, and the taxpayers pay daily to jail them.”

Pechman set a reporting schedule for the agency to provide updates on its efforts to remedy the problems.