Incompetent to stand trial — but competent to walk free

The News TribuneApril 12, 2013 

Prosecutors call them “gap cases.” It’s the gap between competency to stand trial in the justice system and competency to be released from a psychiatric hospital.

Because those standards aren’t aligned, suspects in violent felonies sometimes become patients with a fast ticket to freedom. A measure in the Legislature would narrow that gap, and it ought to be sent to the governor’s desk.

A perfect – if ghastly – example of the need played out in Tacoma last October.

After threatening his parents for years, 29-year-old Jonathan Robert Meline reportedly hatcheted his father to death in the middle of the night in their North End home.

In a piece written for these pages last month, his mother, Kim Meline, gave a harrowing account of what preceded the killing:

Jonathan Meline – diagnosed with severe paranoid schizophrenia – had spent years knocking back and forth between jail, mental institutions and his family. His pattern of violence was escalating.

In 2010, he attempted to steal a Jeep from a car dealership and tried to run over a salesman who tried to block his way. He was sent to jail, then evaluated at Western State Hospital in Lakewood, where he was found incompetent to stand trail.

Western State, according to Kim Meline, was preparing to release him when county prosecutors put him back in custody. The criminal proceedings and psychiatric evaluations were repeated twice before the justice system lost its hold on Jonathan Meline.

He wound up committed to Western State as a regular patient. Doctors are not prosecutors. When they deemed Jonathan Meline capable of living outside the hospital, they let him go. He was far from stable, though, and the results were tragic.

Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist notes the incongruity: If someone like Jonathan Meline is well enough to be released into the community, why isn’t he well enough to stand trial?

The legislation, House Bill 1114 and Senate Bill 5176, addresses that dilemma. The bills are complex.

One provision would allow civil trials to determine whether the patient actually committed the acts of violence he was charged with and whether he would likely commit more as a result of his mental condition. If that’s the case, it would become easier to extend his commitment and treatment.

The additional confinement and evaluations for these patients could cost the state perhaps $1 million a year. Think of that as money the state has been saving by not confining people like Meline.

Instead, the price has been paid by their innocent victims. That’s unconscionable, and it has to change.

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