Judge: Long jail waits for mentally ill illegal

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SEATTLE (AP) — 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. They sometimes wind up in solitary confinement because guards don't know how else to deal with them.

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 how 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 who are suffering needlessly in jail," said Margaret Chen, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington who is working on the case. "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 the 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 "bright line" rule for how long is too long. The state says the psychiatric hospital budget faces a $6 million shortfall.

"DSHS will need additional resources to shorten the wait times for forensic mental health services," the department said in a statement. "To do so will take time and the assistance of the Legislature. Currently, every psychiatric bed at the state hospitals is full and every evaluator has a full caseload."

The department said Gov. Jay Inslee's proposed two-year budget includes $8.8 million to open a new 30-bed forensic ward at Western State Hospital, and five forensic beds at Eastern State Hospital.

David Carlson, legal director at Disability Rights Washington, which brought the lawsuit along with the ACLU chapter, said the state has long known about the problem and should be fixing it as soon as possible. He noted that its costs money to hold the defendants in jail, and their worsened condition after their jail stints can require longer hospital stays, further driving up expenses.

Any solution needs to include boosting community mental health services to keep more people out of the legal system, he said. Many of those being held in jails face misdemeanor charges, he said.

"Police often say they wish they had some other option, but if you don't have enough mental health facilities in the community, they wind up in jail or emergency rooms," he said.

The King County Department of Public Defense said public defenders have for some time challenged long waits for mental health services case-by-case. Armed with Pechman's ruling, they will probably start asking judges to dismiss cases if the state doesn't provide timely evaluations, the department said.

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