The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington issued a permanent injunction against the state of Washington on April 2 , mandating that the state provide competency and restoration services to pre-trial detainees within seven days.
“The mentally ill are deserving of the protections of the Constitution that our forefathers so carefully crafted,” Judge Marsha Pecham wrote in the opinion. “The rights protected can be difficult and sometimes costly to secure; however, the Constitution is a guarantee to all people, and is not dependent on a price tag. The State must honor its obligations under the law.”
The decision comes four months after the court ruled that the state is systematically violating the due process rights of people with disabilities by forcing them to languish in jails, often for months, while waiting for these services.
The ruling comes from a class-action lawsuit filed against the state Department of Social and Health Services in 2012 by the individuals, with the assistance of attorneys from Disability Rights Washington, the ACLU of Washington, the Public Defender Association, and Carney Gillespie Isitt.
“Constitutional rights are not subject to available funds. The state’s excuses that they have lacked funding or resources to provide competency services to vulnerable individuals waiting in jail will no longer be tolerated,” said Emily Cooper, staff attorney with Disability Rights Washington, in a news release.
Both Washington State and federal law prohibit the criminal prosecution of people who are not competent to stand trial, meaning they do not understand the charges against them or are unable to aid in their own defense.
When a judge has reason to doubt a defendant’s competency in Washington State, the state Department of Social and Health Services is required to provide competency evaluations.
If the person is not competent to stand trial, as is the case in nearly half of such evaluations, then the DSHS must provide restoration services. These services are provided at Washington’s two state hospitals: Western State Hospital in Lakewood, south of Tacoma, and Eastern State Hospital, in Medical Lake, west of Spokane.
In recent years, demand for competency evaluations and restoration services has skyrocketed in Washington. From 2001 to 2011, there was an 82 percent increase in orders for competency evaluations. The Washington State legislature has taken notice, passing legislation twice in the past half-decade establishing a target seven-day maximum wait time for competency and restoration services.
Despite this legislative mandate, the DSHS has fallen woefully short of meeting this target. The court noted that at both state hospitals, wait times for competency evaluations are more than a month.
As a result, it has become commonplace for defendants waiting competency evaluations and restoration services to languish in jails for weeks, or even months. In many instances, these defendants are warehoused in solitary confinement, where they sit in isolation for 23 hours per days, further exacerbating their disabilities.
“Our jails are not suitable places for the mentally ill to be warehoused while they wait for services,” the court stated in its ruling. “Jails are not hospitals, they are not designed as therapeutic environments, and they are not equipped to manage mental illness or keep those with mental illness from being victimized by the general population of inmates.”
The court held a held a bench trial from March 16 to March 25.
In mandating the seven-day time period, Judge Pecham chided the state for its failure to provide sufficient funding for beds, personnel, and other essential resources.
“The Department has failed to plan ahead for growth in the demand for competency services, which has increased every year for the last decade, and has failed to show the leadership and capacity for innovation that is required to address the crisis,” the court stated.
A video from Disability Rights Washington about this problem, titled “7 Days: Don’t Ignore the Court” can be seen here.
“In light of this decision, I hope the State responds by focusing on solutions and providing appropriate funding for mental health services, rather than making excuses and delays that cause class members to continue to suffer harm,” Cooper said.
Disability Rights Washington, which operates this Galaxy website, is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and is a member of the National Disability Rights Network.