Federal Court Finds State in Contempt in Suit Over Violating Constitutional Rights of People with Mental Illness in Jail

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
July 7, 2016 5:15 pm

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Today U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman found the State of Washington in contempt of her repeated orders requiring the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to provide timely mental health competency services. She imposed monetary sanctions on a per person, per day basis: $500 per day for each person who has waited more than 7 days but fewer than 14 days, and $1000 per day for each person who has waited more than 14 days. The monies will be directed towards the development of diversion programs to reduce dependence on the state hospitals.

In so finding, the Court noted that “[t]he 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.”

This ruling comes in prolonged litigation that Plaintiffs initiated in August 2014. Despite repeated and numerous court orders requiring the state to respect the constitutional rights of those with mental illness in the criminal justice system, the State has willfully refused to comply. Representing the plaintiffs are the ACLU of Washington, Disability Rights Washington, and Carney Gillespie Isitt PLLP.

“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 pre-trial detainees ordered to receive competency services,” said La Rond Baker of the ACLU of Washington.

“DSHS has had the opportunity to fix this problem on its own for years. Instead of listening to the Court Monitor or its own experts, DSHS has continued to waste money and time on unproven solutions. This is why we asked the Court for relief on behalf of our clients,” said Emily Cooper of Disability Rights Washington

“Today’s ruling says that enough is enough. Enough excuses, enough failure of leadership, enough needless suffering,” said Chris Carney of Carney Gillespie Isitt PLLP. “It’s time for serious commitment from the State, time to do what it takes to meet its obligation to vulnerable people in desperate need. We hope this ruling is a wake-up call.”

Under state law, whenever there is reason to doubt that an individual with mental disabilities is competent to stand trial, the trial court orders an evaluation to determine their competency. The law charges DSHS with evaluating and treating these individuals. If their competency is restored, their criminal cases may proceed; if it is not restored, the criminal charges are dismissed. During the evaluation and restoration periods, speedy trial rights are automatically waived, and the criminal proceedings are stayed.

Unfortunately, the State has failed to perform these services on a timely basis. Stays of criminal proceedings pending evaluation and restoration of competency often last for months. As a result, individuals with mental health disabilities have languished in city and county jails without appropriate mental health treatment while awaiting transport to Eastern State Hospital or Western State Hospital.

Warehousing vulnerable people in jail is harmful. The delays cause individuals to experience needless deterioration in their mental health as they sit in jails – frequently in solitary confinement for 22 to 23 hours a day – for weeks and months on end. Jail disciplinary systems can further exacerbate mental health conditions. People often end up spending more time waiting in jail than they would if they had pleaded guilty.

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