Washington State Found Guilty of Violating Civil Rights of Mentally Ill Inmates

Wednesday, July 13, 2016
Judge Marsha Pechman

By Nick McCann, Courthouse News Service


SEATTLE (CN) — In a harshly worded opinion (pdf), a federal judge held the state of Washington in contempt for not meeting the needs of mentally ill inmates waiting for competency services.


U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman said the state's Department of Social and Health Services is not taking "all of the steps necessary to protect the rights of some of our most vulnerable citizens."


"The people of Washington deserve to have their mental health needs and the needs of their spouses, parents, children, and friends attended to with the same urgency and dignity our society expects hospitals to respond with when presented with a broken bone or a cancerous tumor," Pechman wrote in the contempt order, issued July 7.


The decision stems from a 2014 class action claiming that Washington state violates the civil rights of mentally ill inmates by delaying their competency evaluations.


In April 2015, Pechman found in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the state to provide competency evaluations within seven days.


Earlier this year, a Ninth Circuit panel agreed with Pechman's prior assessment that "jails are not suitable places for the mentally ill to be warehoused while they wait for services."


The panel noted that a combination of factors, including staffing shortages and reporting delays, has caused the issue.


Washington state did not appeal the part of Pechman's injunction regarding in-hospital evaluations and restoration of competency services.


Pechman acknowledged that Washington state has worked to reform its mental health system for inmates since her injunction, including adding more beds at state hospitals and lobbying for more legislation to improve the competency project.


"Defendants' actions, however, have more often than not been too small in scale and too late in time, and have prioritized business-as-usual over the type of systemic reform required to address the constitutional crisis at the heart of this case," the judge wrote.


Per Pechman's order, the state will pay $500 a day for each class member who waited for between a week and two weeks for competency services, and $1,000 a day for each class member who waited more than two weeks.


The Department of Social and Health Services expressed disappointment with the ruling, and assistant secretary Carla Reyes noted in a statement that the department had seen "significant success in reducing the times it takes to provide competency services for class members."


The department said it added 96 new beds and hired 13 more evaluators and has opened two facilities for restoration services since Pechman's injunction last year.


The group Disability Rights Washington, which represented some of the plaintiffs in the class, says as many as 31 percent of people incarcerated have some type of disability.


In a statement, La Lond Baker of Washington ACLU said, "The court has made it crystal clear that the state can no longer drag its heels and ignore the court's directives. The state must act now to ensure that it no longer tramples the rights of pretrial detainees ordered to receive competency services."


In June, the state filed a motion for reconsideration of Pechman's injunction, arguing "delays still occur through no fault of the department."


For example, the state says three- or four-day delays are common, especially over weekends.


"These delays persist despite the passage of a state law that sets short timelines for transmission of documents, and despite the department's efforts to advocate for timely transmission of lawful court orders and required documentation," the state attorney general's office wrote in the motion.


The state noted that the 14-day deadline for inpatient evaluation "is one of the strictest in the country" and emphasized that certain defendants misuse the competency process to delay their trials.


"The state has a legitimate interest in ensuring that spaces in the state hospital go to those who need them most urgently, namely those actually in confirmed need of mental health treatment, not those simply waiting evaluation," the state wrote.


To Learn More:

Cassie Cordell Trueblood, et al, v. Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, et al (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit) (pdf)

California Mentally Ill Left Untreated in Jail Longer than if They Had Plead Guilty (by Rebekah Kearn, Courthouse News Service)

ACLU Lawsuit Accuses the State of “Warehousing” Mentally Ill in Jails (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)


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